Three burn marks scarred a menu. Red wine stained another. Amateur-hour mistakes, maybe acceptable at T.G.I. Friday’s, but not at a chic restaurant like Mehtaphor. Yet on my second visit, the same. And again on the third.
“It’s on purpose,” my waiter finally explained. “The chef likes it that way. It shows the evolution of the menu and dining experience. It keeps you thinking.”
Or gives the owner an excuse for not ponying up for a printer. But if ever a guy kept diners guessing, it would be Jehangir Mehta, the experimental pastry chef who inched into the savory world with his minuscule East Village debut, Graffiti. Equally eclectic in scope is this follow-up venture, located inside Tribeca’s Duane Street Hotel. Seating about 45, the slightly cramped dining room features a cool, contemporary design that balances minimalism with flashes of whimsy (pendant chandeliers, bright pillows). Hotel dining for the noncorporate set.
The menu of sharable plates runs the gamut from tasty treats to more disappointing duds, but nothing is snooze-worthy, for sure. Mehta’s distinct culinary point of view traverses the spice trail through Asia while dabbling in the principles of Far Eastern medicine. Each table gets a vegetarian menu, too, and Mehta happily caters to vegans and the gluten-intolerant. Everyone wins! Except perhaps the crustless white bread set.
Oysters ($9) get gussied up with tart grapefruit granita and a sprinkling of neon pink Pop Rocks. Snazzy, yes, but a party trick—the candy’s bubbling sensation awes the first time, recalling the pleasures (or for some, the trauma) of seventh-grade recess. Yet the cloying candy hides the bivalve’s brininess, the flavors schizophrenic. Tartare with guacamole sorbet ($12) offers a fresh take on the staple, but a heavy hand of mustard masks any beefy flavor. And skip over the shaved foie gras with raspberry compote ($12), since this trio of open-faced sandwiches totally lacks pizzazz. Best to gobble the goat cheese, crab, and truffle pizza ($12)—a gooey ode to rich-people party food.
Lamb meat ($17) slips off the shank, falling into a rich, masala-spiced broth. Sop up the soupy leftovers with the mountain of sweet potato fries. Surprise kitchen matchmaking occurs with the pairing of grilled shrimp kebabs ($17), polka-dotted with jet-black onion seeds, and julienned green papaya doused in chile-flecked raita. Chefs who scorn vegetarians by offering grilled portobello mushroom entrées, take note: Vegetable dumplings under a showering of chaat and cilantro define crunchy, fiery meat-free delights.
Fruity cocktails ($7) work best as palate cleansers before the sweet finale. Coconut fizz enlivened with lime juice, minced chile, and tarragon evokes Thai beachside living (imagine tom kha soup minus the protein), while lime sorbet seduces tequila to produce the margarita and the Slurpee’s lovechild (though with fetal alcohol syndrome).
Ignore the dentist devil on your shoulder and order the decadent hazelnut soufflé, piping hot from the oven. Then cool down with an ice cream sundae laced with crepe shards, crunchy cocoa balls, and chocolate swirls. If only Mister Softee served these back in the day.
Mehta may flirt with celebrity (as a runner-up on The Next Iron Chef), but don’t call him a megalomaniac à la Gordon Ramsay. During all of my meals, he answered telephones and cleared plates in addition to preparing food. He chatted with customers, explaining how dishes were made and soliciting feedback. Sure, the kitchen could have benefited from more of his supervision, but you’d be hard-pressed to find such an intimate, personalized relationship between chef and diners elsewhere. Even if not all of the food wows, you’ll most likely leave with respect and appreciation for him. No metaphors needed—he’s simply the real deal.