By Steve Alcazari
Special To CTNow
4:45 PM EST, November 19, 2013
Well, thank god for cell phones. Mine proved essential when I went to Tabaq Masala, a Pakistani restaurant with pan-Asian touches in Meriden recently. I had called first, sure, and the smartphone helped out in navigating to the spot on the Berlin Turnpike. But we probably wouldn't have ever been seated at the restaurant if I hadn't had my phone handy.
When we arrived, the parking lot was entirely empty. But there was a flashing "open" sign in the window. And I had called ahead to check, so that was all nominally hopeful. But inside there was no one in sight. I rang the little shiny bell on the counter. I called out. Nothing. I was about to leave, which seemed like the sensible thing to do, when I decided to call the number I had called before driving out. Someone answered and assured me they were open. When I told them we were in the dining room, I heard footsteps coming down the hall.
Two men — a young waiter, and an older manager-seeming guy — came to meet us, and to offer menus and a table. They said the kitchen staff was around, but everyone was busy doing catering work, so that's why no one greeted us in the dining room. To be fair, Tabaq Masala is a sprawling place, with banquet-hall-type rooms wings. The kitchen may in fact be a little bit of a walk from the dining room we entered.
Still, Tabaq Masala isn't going to impress anyone with its handling of the rudiments of service. The room, too, is a little rundown, a feeling that's only compounded by emptiness. The restaurant serves a regular weekend or lunch buffet, but those trays were empty when we stopped in. Which was fine — we wanted to order off the menu anyway.
About that menu, Tabaq Masala serves halal food, according to Islamic dietary strictures. This mainly means you won't find any pork or alcohol. But there are Chinese, Thai and dishes available as well. There are Indo-Chinese items. A special on the bar announced fish and chips as well. The bulk of what's on offer is Indian food. Naan, roti and paratha breads are all on hand. So too are the tandoori, biryani, dal and korma dishes one expects.
We started with an order of samosa chat, the sweet and savory Indian street food that has grown more popular among American diners in recent years. This arrived in a bowl layered with curried chick peas, finely diced red onions, tomatoes, yogurt and vibrant green mint chutney, all concealing a crunchy bed of samosa pastry shell. This was a multi-colored riot of contrasts. Samosa chat is a jumble of flavors, with the yogurt serving to cool the palate and temper the heat of the onions and curry. Somewhere in there was that sweet raisiny flavor of tamarind as well, though I couldn't make out where. And It's a balance of crisp and smooth textures as well.
The fact that we were clearly the only ones around meant that things were presumably very fresh. An order of naan was soft and fresh, lighter on the yogurt and butter than some versions of this fluffy bread. It was still the perfect vehicle for swabbing up tasty sauces. An order of saag paneer (spiced and stewed spinach with hunks of firm and mild homemade cheese embedded in it), was flavorful, but a little oily.
Chana masala was a little close to the chick-pea base of the samosa chat, but it had a pronounced ground coriander taste. Fresh cilantro leaves added bright color and flavor. The weakest dish was an order of chili fish — fried pieces of white fish in a thick and spicy garlic and pepper sauce. The sauce was close to the sweet and spicy flavor of many Indo-Chinese dishes (imagine General Tso's sauce as conceived by a chili-obsessed Indian chef). Onions and a mix of red peppers and hot chilies provided deep flavor. But the fish was a little stronger tasting than one might like.
On the whole, if one approaches Tabaq Masala with slightly modified expectations — if, for instance, you enter, not knowing whether you'll be served — there are pleasures to be had at this slightly unassuming banquet-hall of a restaurant. Don't bring a date. And know that calling ahead doesn't mean anyone will actually greet you upon your arrival.
1843 North Broad St, Meriden CT 06450 (855) 860-8646, meridenindianrestaurant.com