Ambiance: Classy and sensual
Mela is a Hindi word for a coming together, especially for a celebration. By the looks of it, Asheville’s newest Indian restaurant is living up to its name quite nicely, and the celebration is quite picture-perfect.
A drive down Lexington Avenue often reveals a gaggle of smartly attired diners gathered in the restaurant over steaming plates, kicking back over cocktails at the classy bar area, or milling about on the sidewalks in front looking pretty. It seems that Mela has become Asheville’s newest gathering place for scenesters, local celebrities, movers-and-shakers – you get the picture. The restaurant has the aura of an urban hot-spot, and the beautiful people are celebrating its arrival.
Just to make it clear, Mela does not discriminate – I’ve seen more than an average Joe or two there and some families giving the exotic flavors of Indian cuisine a whirl. Though I might have detected a slight air of smugly knowledgeable coolness emanating from our waitress, it was more than likely distributed equitably among all of the people seated in her section, regardless of culinary knowledge or evidence of fashion sense.
Mela, itself, provides a gorgeous backdrop. An intricately carved front door that looks impossibly heavy gives way easily to reveal a posh interior. The walls and ceilings are decorated in rich colors, predominantly a golden ochre and a ruby red. The tables are constructed of dark wood, as is the bar and the leather-upholstered stools that line it. Enormous windows dominate one side of the room, while tea lights twinkle along the far end of the restaurant. Ornately framed mirrors and paintings share the walls with Ganesh, who presides over the entrance, and Shiva, who stands guard over the kitchen.
The acoustics are a bit brittle, perhaps owing to the high ceilings and the tiled floors, with nothing really to absorb sound. With the dining room full, it can seem a bit noisy as conversations and busy restaurant sounds bounce around the open space. Thankfully, Mela has declined to use the entire floor space at its disposal to cram in diners (though they probably could have easily done so), thus controlling the crowd and dampening the noise.
The depth of sensory enchantment that this restaurant has to offer is as richly layered as the cuisine and culture that inspires it. Indeed, the interior is beautiful, and the attention to detail evident throughout. If you had the chance to visit this building before the current owners got their hands on it, you know what a breathtaking transition it has undergone. But I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that Mela is all surface – quite the contrary.
The most wonderful thing about Mela is that it is no enchantress; it does not distract you with beauty in hopes you won’t notice barely passable food and shabby service. Almost everything that we sampled on the two occasions we dined on Mela’s cuisine was excellent.
The samosas were well-seasoned and well-prepared, a perfectly flaky, crunchy pastry encasing a moist, fluffy and expertly spiced interior. My Picky Companion, who fancies himself a samosa connoisseur, was duly impressed.
The palak pakoras – spinach fried in a spicy batter of green chiles, curry leaves, chick pea and rice flour – were primarily crispy and light, but occasionally doughy and greasy. The deliciousness of the more well-cooked pakoras was well worth the occasional dud.
The milagu rasam – a pepper-flavored, tamarind-based soup – was perfect for my sinuses, which are consistently ailing at this time of the year. Between the spiciness of the soup and the pakoras, I craved a bit of coolness, so I tried to order some raita. Our waitress, however, evidenced some coolness of her own, expertly avoiding my pleading gaze. I’m not one to make a spectacle of myself by wildly flagging someone down, so I let it go – though my desire was fulfilled by the next course.
The naan was slightly inconsistent, as were the papadum wafers. On one occasion, the naan – a tandoor oven-baked flat bread – was doughy and bland, while on another occasion (especially with the requested addition of garlic and cilantro) it was perfect. The papadum – lentil wafers served with a fabulous mint/cilantro chutney and a tamarind sauce – was on one occasion chewy and unpleasant in texture.
My companion ordered the tandoori lamb and loved it, though I deemed it a bit tough, as I prefer my meat slightly bloody. I was consequently informed by Picky that, should I ever travel to India, I should prepare myself for either well-done meat or none at all.
Vegetarians are fairly well provided for at Mela, and if they’re at all familiar with Indian cuisine, should recognize most of the dishes on the menu. There is the obligatory saag paneer, with its toothsome homemade cheese, a spicy bhindi masala, and a delicious, creamy vegetable korma. The Baingain Bharta, a tandoor-roasted eggplant dish, beckoned – but alas, I had no room to accommodate it, though I shall surely try it on my next visit, along with the desserts (kheer, kulfi and gulab jamun) that I had to pass on as well.
From the brief Samundri Moti (seafood) section of the menu, we selected the Kerala Fish Curry, which became my hands-down favorite entree. The description of the dish on the menu does it little justice – “mahi-mahi lightly cooked in a coconut, curry leaf and tamarind sauce” – though that is precisely what it was. The description brings to mind something a bit too sweet (it is only barely so, and manages to strike a complex balance), and it fails even to hint at the depth of spices and flavor contained within the sauce – though if Indian food is done right, that is precisely what one should expect. And Indian food done right is precisely what Mela specializes in.
Mela is an excellent addition to Asheville’s increasingly diverse culinary tapestry, and the staff, especially for a young restaurant, is doing a fabulous job. As with all new restaurants, as this one gets more steady on its feet and more comfortable with age (though it is already strikingly sure-footed), I expect Mela will surpass expectations – beautifully.