Innovative multiethnic mash-ups
by M.B. Lewis
From the April, 2018 issue
It took a few tries to check out the new menu at Melange. I planned a late-winter visit to sample the new fusion dishes created in consultation with Eve Aronoff Fernandez, the creative force behind Frita Batidos and two fondly remembered eponymous restaurants. My friend Lisa, a longtime Melange devotee, offered to come and talk me through her favorite new menu items (like avocado naan) and those items she missed most (Thai lettuce wraps and the extensive sushi roster).
We both were free on the last Tuesday in February (Tuesdays are when 30 percent happy-hour bar menu discounts last all evening). Alas, we arrived at six to a closed restaurant and taped sign on the door saying, "sorry--special staff training night." So we went to Grange for salad and appetizers.
A second foiled attempt was my fault, because I scheduled a Sunday visit without checking if Melange is open Sunday (it's not). With my deadline looming, we went the next day, calling ahead for a reservation, even though Monday isn't a busy restaurant night.
Descending the long staircase from street level, we saw a group of a dozen-plus business-casual men filling a long table in the high-style dining room. Our party of three was shown to a beige-cushioned circular booth that felt luxuriously private and insulated from the guffaws of the guys across the room. A server brought a plate with a wedge of that house-made naan, so thick it's like focaccia, and a big dollop of butter sprinkled with an Indian curry mix. A stylish version of the old bread basket, it set the tone for what turned out to be a meal of innovative multiethnic mash-ups.
While we polished off the hearty naan, we assailed our patient server with questions about the menu. Deciding to go light on appetizers, we ordered only the new "Melange Caesar" salad. It arrived as a deconstructed plate of romaine leaves with silvery anchovies tucked along their spines, mini
croutons, sunny little quail egg halves, scant shavings of Reggiano, and stripes of orange chili oil. Since the menu listed seven ingredients, I asked our server where the fermented black beans were hiding. Turns out they were part of the dressing--which explained its pungency. I'd rate the Caesar as more interesting than amazing; the flavors were so strong that only one of us dug in with gusto.
Our three entrees got a whole lot closer to amazing. "Day Boat Scallops" were cooked well and simply presented, with just little snips of ham fried into melted butter. They came with nice, crisped Brussels sprouts and more buttery-rich "French-baked rice" than one person could eat.
"Sweet Savory and Spicy Sea Bass" is an update of a longtime popular Melange entree, the name quite accurate in describing the flavor-packed plate. A good-sized portion of tender fish came atop bright-green leaves of baby bok choi interspersed with tiny blasts of Brinery kimchi. The "tropical gastrique" sauce had lots of citrus in its sweet-and-vinegary profile, but also peppery punch. It all worked surprisingly well.
Possibly our favorite entree was the even more peppery "Braised Lamb Shank," a savory and massive bone-in presentation afloat in amber jus. The tender meat was flavorful throughout, with minimal gaminess. The attendant vegetable stew served as command control for the eye-watering peppery kick, which kept drawing our forks back once our brains knew what to expect. Even tiny lumps of cooked-down potatoes were spicy; a little dollop of creme fraiche provided some cooling.
Less adventuresome eaters can always opt for the "Simple Fish" or "Simple Steak," reborn here from Eve's namesake places.
We had room for dessert but probably wouldn't have ordered one apiece had we known how big they were. All were delicious, though: fruit crumble with nice firm apple slices and cherries; a creamy tres leches cakelet with grilled pineapple; and a gorgeous wedge of flourless chocolate cake with Chantilly cream, beautifully crowned by a halo of angel-hair-thin red chili strands.
The bill for all this came to less than $150, which seemed like good value considering we sat in that booth for more than two hours and left so stuffed we barely made it out.
Even better value comes at the bar happy hour, sampled later on a solo visit. I found that avocado-topped naan refreshing, but a different salad of greens and herbs had a vinaigrette too tart for my taste despite listing fig as an ingredient. Maybe I'm being hard on the salads because the one I had at Grange instead that Tuesday night when Melange was training staff had a more perfect balance.
But there's a lot to like at Melange these days. With little Main Street presence other than a doorway, it's a hidden hideaway with a world of creativity on tap. They say the menu is still in flux, a tease for us about what's yet to come.
312 S. Main St.
Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-11 p.m. (dinner 5-10 p.m.), Fri. & Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m. (dinner 5-11 p.m.). Closed Sun.
Appetizers, salads, and small plates $7-$26, entrees $20-$36, desserts $7-$9.
Wheelchair access via the elevator in the Ark next door.
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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