Berkeley is stuffed with shish kabobs and chicken tikkas, lamb vindaloos and saag paneers. A new Indian restaurant opens almost monthly in this city, and most copy their menus straight from their neighbors. Over and over again, the cooks discard the fare they grew up eating in favor of an uninspiring list of dishes that they think Americans will immediately recognize.
That said, occasionally one of these cookie-cutter restaurants does the standards so well that even a jaded critic can't help but enjoy himself. Mehak Indian Cuisine, across the street from Breads of India on Sacramento, is one of those restaurants. Its everyday, no-nonsense North Indian food often bests the ever-changing offerings of its more adventurous competitor across the median. And when Mehak's cooks bring out their will-o'-the-wisp specials menu, watch out.
It does help that the owner, Sukhdev Singh, and chef, Gurmit Singh (no immediate relation), hail from Punjab, the North Indian epicenter of tandoor oven cooking. For some reason, most of the "Indian" food we eat here in the States is Punjabi, even when the cooks come from Maharashtra or Andhara Pradesh. "You can tell the cooks are from the Muslim part of India," said my Bengali friend Kisha after a bite of rogan josh, a brick-red lamb curry that throbbed like the smoky, buzzy bass of a Joy Division song.
"How?" I asked.
"The way the lamb fat was used in the gravy [curry]," he replied. "The kind of ghee they use. And the spices -- no one else can get that rich, deep flavor."
The Singhs opened Mehak (meaning "flavor" or "fragrance") last August in a small, inconspicuous space that they freshened up with a good scrub, a coat of sky-blue paint, and a few Harlequin-cover paintings of moonlit couples collapsing together under the weight of love. Those, plus the ubiquitous photo of the Taj Mahal.
You could recite the weekday menu in your sleep: lamb, chicken, and seafood curries, along with tandoori meats, biryanis, a goodly selection of vegetarian entrées, and breads. The entire panorama of the lunch buffet can be yours for only $6.99. Alcohol is absent, but you can slake your thirst with lassi, sodas, and your choice of five nonalcoholic beers.
The breads come out of the tandoor thin, crisp-edged, and yeasty, with enough butter brushed over the top to shine your fingers. Kisha and his wife Denise were disappointed that they all came at once; in India, they said, no matter how many you order, naan and roti should always be served one at a time so that the puff and blister of the fresh bread doesn't fade. I most enjoyed the plain naan and garlic naan, with its mix of chopped herbs blackening on top. A bright-pink paste coated the insides of the Kashmiri naan. Some restaurants mix chopped dried cherries with almonds and coconut for this bread; Mehak substitutes ground maraschino cherries. It cast a cotton-candy shadow over everything we tried to eat it with.
Besides the rogan josh, other standouts on the menu ranged from the low to the high end. In the dal makhni, yellow split peas were cooked with the Punjabi trinity of aromatics, onions, garlic, and ginger, and spiked with fresh cilantro and fresh tomatoes. Despite their early-spring pinkness, the tomatoes punctuated the solidly savory flavor of the pulses with little bursts of acidity. The fish tikka had been stripped off the skewer at just the right moment, so the cubes of spice-rubbed salmon pulled apart easily, translucent and moist in the center. And while the potato-and-chickpea dumplings known as malai kofta were a little too dense, the gravy of cream, ground almonds, tomato, chiles, cardamom, and cinnamon made such an impression that we poured the rest over some rice and took it home.
A little more standard were a creamy aloo saag with a great depth of flavor but no obvious spicing or high notes, and a perfectly adequate mixed vegetable curry (one bright note: it contained unripe plantains along with the potato, cauliflower, peas, etc.). The batter on the cheese and vegetable pakora was a little thick, turning out doughy instead of crisp and light.
I first visited Mehak on a date, not for a review. But two of the specials, typed up on an insert in the regular menu, caught our notice -- and kept it. Fork-tender Punjabi lamb masala was swathed in a thick, earthy paste of ground sesame seeds, aromatics, and yogurt; chiles and cloves marked the high notes. In the gobi kastoori, cauliflower was dry-fried with the three aromatics, tomato, and fenugreek until crisp-tender and savory.
They were good enough to earn Mehak a review. I returned twice, each time looking for more Punjabi specials. No insert. Both times we walked out content; I was the only diner who had been looking for more.
"So, when do you offer your specials?" I asked Sukhdev Singh when I called to tell him I was reviewing his restaurant.
"Sometimes two days a week, sometimes seven," he replied.
"Do they appear on any certain days, like weekends?"
"No, when the chef feels like it's time."
"I really liked the specials."
"Perhaps soon we'll start offering them seven days a week."
So I started the lobbying. It's my duty as a restaurant critic to encourage Indian restaurateurs (like their Chinese, Thai, Italian, and Mexican counterparts) that the food they love is the food we'll love, too. The rest of the job is now up to you. Make sure the chef of Mehak keeps offering up innovative regional Punjabi dishes. When the standards are so good, the specials can be very special indeed.
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What the Fork - February 28, 1:16 PM