As the sun emerges from the grey clouds that continuously inhabit Ithaca’s skyline, I too emerge from the dim recesses of the stacks at Olin Library. It is time for a study break and an even more perfect time to try out Mehak’s lunch buffet for $11.99 with my roommates.
As we arrive, I take notice of the exterior of the eatery. It looks like a typical hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant with heavy maroon and gold drapes resting upon slightly tinted windows bearing in pretty gold letters the words: “MEHAK AUTHENTIC INDIAN CUISINE.” As I open the door, I am greeted by a delicious medley of fragrances: the sweet woodsy smell of cardamom, the earthy flower-like smell of saffron, the sharp smell of ginger and the warm nutty smell of roasted cumin seeds. It takes no longer than two minutes for the waitress to find us a quaint little table for four, adorned with white and plum table cloths, across from a large window which pleasantly directs the warmth of the sun’s rays onto our backs.
My first order of business is to order a mango lassi, a yogurt-based mango drink. We wait no more than five minutes for the waitress to come out with a tray of tall crystalline glasses filled with bright orange liquid and ice. The very first sip instantly awakens every cell in my body, as the cool refreshing sweetness of the mango flavor washes away any tiredness I had felt from the school day. The tangy flavor of the yogurt couples perfectly with the biting sweetness of the mango, balancing the drink so that it’s just right to sip on throughout the meal without overpowering any of the other dishes. Its consistency, the perfect balance between thick and thin, allows the drink to gently coat the insides of my mouth just enough for the taste of mango to linger briefly before disappearing altogether. After tasting the lassi, I readily get into the fast-moving buffet line which clears the way to a rainbow of dishes, proudly boasting hues from warm reds to forest greens.
I pile a few pieces of naan onto my plate, some basmati rice, a few pieces of pakora, some karahi paneer masala, aloo saag, chicken tikka masala and raita. The first thing I try is the naan, a type of flatbread. The texture is delightful: light, fluffy and the perfect thickness so that I do not have to chew much to eat it. I chase my naan with a spoonful of karahi paneer masala, which is made out of homemade cheese marinated in yogurt, various spices, onions, green pepper and tomato. I find the use of small paneer pieces to be optimal compared to the more commonly used larger pieces as it allows for a bite of cheese with every spoonful of sauce, creating the perfect cheese-to-sauce ratio. The cheese pieces alone are quite flavorful as they seem to be soaked in the same flavors that define the sauce. The softness of the cheese paired with the smoothness of the sauce makes the texture as enjoyable as the taste itself — the sauce practically melts in my mouth, releasing the earthy flavor of the onion, the sharp tangy flavor of the green pepper, the nutty spiciness of the black pepper and the sweet, juicy flavor of the tomatoes.
After finishing the paneer, I make my way over to the aloo saag, a potato and spinach dish adorned with a bounty of spices. As I take my first spoonful, I am shocked at how smooth and butter-like the sauce is; the fresh spinach is pureed so well that it’s nearly impossible to feel the individual pieces. This smoothness contrasted with the chewiness of the potato pieces adds a perfect blend of texture to the dish, while the spinach seems to endow the potatoes with the hearty flavor of roasted garlic along with a slight citrusy and salty undertone. Once done with the aloo saag, I try the chicken tikka masala, which is a dish consisting of chunks of roasted marinated chicken sauteed with onions and tomatoes in a spicy red curry sauce. The sauce tastes very similar to the karahi paneer’s sauce aside from an additional layer of nose-tingling spice. The chicken is perfectly tender, easily falls apart in my mouth and soaks up the flavor of the spices and vegetables that make up the curry sauce.
Moving away from the sauce based dishes, I try the pakora, type of vegetable fried in chickpea batter. The dough is thin and light, allowing the flavor of the vegetable inside to shine. The amount of oil is a lot less than I expect, giving the dish a much lighter feel and taste. Next in line is the raita: homemade yogurt with cucumber and roasted cumin seeds. Overall, the raita is enjoyable. The thinness of the yogurt lightens the dish, and the sharpness of the cucumber adds a layer of freshness and clarity. However, the amount of spice is slightly overdone, as the roasted cumin seeds adds a heavy, earthy and slightly overwhelming taste to the dish which at times overshadows the refreshing effect of the cucumber and yogurt.
For dessert, I check out the rice pudding. The rice is so soft and swollen with the sauce that every bite releases a squeeze of milk carrying the spicy yet woodsy undertones of cinnamon along with it. The pudding itself is so smooth and thin that it goes down my throat as if it is a drink. This thinness of the pudding does nothing to detract from the sweet hearty flavor of the milk; in fact, it cuts the heaviness of the milk, making the dish feel less creamy and more light. This desert is truly a perfect way to end a nearly perfect meal. The high quality of the meal and the speedy service mark the characteristics of an excellent eatery aside from the basic interior design, which could be more original and deviate from the design of a typical Indian Restaurant. All in all, I left Mehak with not only a full stomach, but a happy one as well.
Serves: Authentic Indian Cuisine
Vibe: subtly elegant