Restaurant Reviews

India Jones

Forget last year, when Pakistan and India were hurling nuclear threats at each other. This year, India is in. Bookstores are brimming with Indian literature -- a trend that delights me, because I'm a big fan. Clothing designers are employing Indian fabrics, and DJs are spinning Indian synth-pop. Speaking of pop, Alanis Morissette makes references to India on her latest album, Madonna is sporting saris, and kids are showing up at clubs with henna tattoos on their hands. India's cultural influences are as big as elephants in the United States.

So it would stand to reason that the sudden fascination with all things Indian would translate to a flux of nationalistic restaurants. But unfortunately that's not the case. I can spout ghazals (Indian poems), sway to sitar music, and paste all the faux nose rings I want on the side of my schnoz, but I've been hard-pressed to find a fresh, fragrant naan (bread baked in a tandoor, or clay oven) and a zippy curry anywhere in Broward County.

A month-old eatery in Sunrise is an exception. Mehfil, which means "gathering," is the only new Indian restaurant to have come to my attention in, well, years. I couldn't wait to get to some hearty dal (stewed lentils) and tender chicken tikka, courtesy of first-time, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Nasrain and Salin Dhanani.

Like Madonna's appropriation of mehndi (the art of applying henna hand and foot tattoos), however, Mehfil is more fusion than traditional Indian. Don't expect to find décor clichés like burning incense or tables placed in dark corners. Because the 120-seat restaurant also serves as a banquet hall, the large, clean space is bright and cheery. Contemporary Indian music is piped throughout the restaurant, and blond wood floors, crystal chandeliers, and striped fabric on heavy wood chairs all spell Indian-American wedding reception.

Like the décor, most of the cuisine is a compromise between Eastern and Western cultures; for example, a conventional appetizer of samosas (stuffed dough) with roasted corn is served with a Latin chimichurri sauce, and on the main course menu, chicken tikka is offered side by side with masala coq au vin, the traditional French dish imbued with Indian spices. Executive chef Siddhart Mewara, a Johnson & Wales grad, cooks "classical" dishes, like the palak paneer, or large curds of cottage cheese cooked in a spinach sauce, but he concentrates on globally influenced items.

To understand just about any part of the menu, though, you need to have a working knowledge of Indian cuisine, which is quite complex. That way you'll know that, although the cucumber raita is listed as a soup and described as a "chilled cucumber gazpacho," it's not a soup at all; actually the raita is a cool, smooth yogurt dip that has the consistency of custard. As an appetizer it was delicious. We ate it with naan pulled straight from the oven and paratha, a buttery, griddled bread that was served at the beginning of the meal with a vibrant pickled-onion chutney.

Familiarity with spice mixtures and names of dishes, along with a dash of world history, also enables patrons to decipher menu descriptions, some of which, like the one for the murgh korma Nizami entrée, aren't at all helpful. The dish is described on the menu only as "a delicacy from the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad." More informative is the fact that korma is a preparation with a sauce made from about 20 ingredients, including coconut, ginger, cinnamon, yogurt, and tomatoes. All fuse together to form a dark, rich blanket for the murgh, or chicken. We were pleased with the intriguing flavors of Mehfil's korma but disappointed with the lack of piquancy. We'd requested this baby spicy.

Other menu items were simply misleading, and numerous typos and misspellings complicated things further. What was described as a vegetarian dish of grilled eggplant with curried carrots turned out to be a plate of grilled vegetables that didn't offer any curry flavor. Subz korma, a vegetable curry, promised "garden-fresh vegetables," but we weren't impressed with the flabby string beans and lima beans that appeared to have been shaken out of a bag of frozen vegetables. Of the classical dishes, the tandoori kebab bazari, an assortment of spiced, skewered meats, reigned supreme. Thin-sliced marinated chicken, chunks of lamb rubbed in dry spices, and tiger prawns that were crisp outside yet succulent inside were all wonderfully aromatic and flavorful.

Mehfil excelled in the fusion department. The potato chat salad appetizer, a traditional Bombay recipe, was updated with four types of potatoes diced into bite-size nuggets and sautéed with a hint of mustard seed. We also enjoyed a tomato-paneer napoleon as an appetizer. Intensely flavored tomatoes and soothing baked cottage cheese were layered in such a way as to form an architectural delicacy. The napoleon was enhanced by a subtle mint chutney.

The globally influenced main courses included boeuf Anarkali, a terrific filet mignon. Succulent beef had been stuffed with creamy Boursin cheese and was served over pomegranate rice pilaf. Spears of roasted portobello mushrooms, juicy from the tandoor's quick-sealing heat, accompanied the meat. Just as delicious was a seared scallop entrée, which offered bay scallops and shiitake mushrooms napped with a coconut-milk broth, all of it served over rice. The only problem here was that the scallops were a last-minute substitution. The sea bass steamed in plantain leaves, which we'd originally ordered, wasn't available, but the server broke the news only after the main courses had been brought to the table.

In fact, service in general at Mehfil needs to be improved, especially if the restaurant hopes to supplement its buffet lunches and sit-down dinners with banquets. The waiter dawdled over the service of our wine, a mediocre Meridien (the best of a lousy bunch) for $22, for about half an hour, and he never even brought the soft drinks we'd requested. The staff in general seems confused about the menu and can't seem to get a dish to a table without wandering around the dining room first.

Still, we were mollified by the appearance of the chef, who brought our dessert of Alphonse mangoes jubilee. He gently flambéed the mangoes for us and poured them over vanilla ice cream. These particular mangoes, an Indian specialty, are rarely seen in the States, and they were much juicier than those we find in our own back yard. So forget Madonna and her Indian-influenced dance steps. The mangoes, among other foodstuffs to be found at Mehfil, are South Florida's most interesting example of cultural crossover to date.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick