by Bix Engels
Mahek reestablished the Indian restaurant presence on East Washington in late August, a year after Shalimar Cafe's departure left it a curry-free zone. The new restaurant was still young and uneven during my visits in September, but at its best, it has the potential to join the top tier of local Indian eateries.
Mahek has expanded the former Shehan Shah by breaking through a wall into the building next door. The new interior is sparkling and open, with black metal chairs and handsome iron lamps against a canvas of white tablecloths and walls accented with a few pieces of art-a framed crazy quilt, a photo of hennaed hands. Try for a seat in the main dining room, where the chairs are infinitely more comfortable.
Mahek seems to have instantly attracted more of a following than Shehan Shah, which was eerily empty both times I visited. Among those early enthusiasts is a contingent of fans from the Observer who come for the lunch buffet. Like all buffets, Mahek's spread has the advantage of visual choice and instant gratification. It offers enough options but doesn't go to excess, and the $7.95 price really does cover everything, even a drink and dessert.
On two visits, the buffet consisted of a tomato cream soup, a choice of several chicken dishes, and my own favorites: a dal makhani of tiny green lentils in a moderately spicy sauce, a chana masala of chickpeas in a classic curry sauce, and a lovely biryani of long-grain rice and vegetables. All withstood the rigors of the steam table well. For other dishes, timing was important. The day I arrived at 11:30, all the offerings were fresh and delicious. When I got there at half past one, the vegetable pakora had dried out, and the bread had seen better moments (I'd guess an hour or so earlier).
Whenever you arrive, you'll have a choice of pickles and chutneys-a puree of mint-cilantro (I love this one), tomato-onion, a tangy sweet tamarind,
and a spicy chunky mango-lemon pickle-as well as raita yogurt sauce and a drink such as mango juice. Sweet hot chai is dispensed from a pull-tap pot. This is a very nice lunch and a pleasant, well-priced workday break.
I was intrigued enough to go back for dinner. On my first visit, a Monday evening, I discovered a different Mahek-generally more refined and sometimes more delicious. Evenings, the buffet is packed up and guests are treated to table service. The à la carte menu shows off the northern-India orientation of Mahek's fare; also, the food is cooked to order, taking timing issues off the table.
On that first evening, four of us took advantage of the multicourse dinner-for-two special, which turned out to be a minibuffet, but made just for us. It was the kind of long, leisurely meal for which Indian food is so well suited-lively talk punctuated by spicy food, beginning with a complimentary plate of pappadams, those crisp wafer-thin, saucer-size peppery crackers made with lentil flour. Alongside came ramekins of mint-cilantro puree and tamarind sauce. Then our real starters arrived-piping hot vegetable samosas, generous deep-fried triangles of crisp pastry stuffed with potatoes and peas and spices. These were followed by a cuplet of dal, a yellow lentil soup that had a light and silky texture speckled with finely chopped bright green herbs, which in turn was succeeded by two chicken and two vegetarian mains. The chicken makhani-cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey calls it "chicken in a butter sauce"-was splendid and rich, with a tomato-cream sauce flavored with herbs, ginger, and the kitchen's own garam masala spice blend. The vegetable korma was lovely too, but it was also fairly rich, with a cream sauce binding chopped carrots, potatoes, nuts, and peas. So to balance it we had the boneless and sauceless tandoori roasted chicken tikka and saag paneer, cubes of house-made cheese and chopped spinach. The paneer was the least popular dish of the night-I was the only one in our group who liked its astringent, somewhat bitter flavor. On the side came a platter of fluffy, faintly seasoned basmati rice and fresh puffy crisped naan baked just for us. We ordered everything medium-
spicy and doused the occasional chili fire with sweet mango lassi.
We barely had room for dessert, gulab jamun-fried breadlike balls in syrup and a super sweet but toothsome rice pudding sprinkled with pistachios. Service was solicitous throughout; we sipped piping hot chai and continued to dish until closing time, never feeling rushed.
A second dinner knocked me off my cloud. With a full dining room on a busy Friday, we sat for twenty minutes without so much as a hello from our waiter. That night much of the food was mediocre (mushy samosas and a charred Bombay grill platter), with the notable exception of finely tuned fish vindaloo, whose nuanced sauce tickled with vinegar and hot chilies. But I'm going to chalk that one up to the restaurant's having been open a scant six weeks. I'm still rooting for Mahek, which has shown it can be a deliciously talented newcomer.
212 East Washington 994-5972
Lunch buffet daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Fri. 5-10 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 3-10 p.m.
Lunch buffet $7.95; appetizers $2.95-
$8.95; breads, soups, & sides $1-$4.50; entrees $7.95-$12.95; multicourse dinner-for-two specials $26.95-$31.95; desserts $2.25-$3.50
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in November, 2008.]