Restaurant News & Reviews

Don't let the menu be your guide

On the menu at Meelo's, under the heading of Salads & Starters, is a curious item called a Spanish salad. The menu describes it as "lettuce, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, mushrooms, peach slices, sun-dried cranberries, tomatoes, olives, walnuts and orange vinaigrette." I suppose it's the olives and oranges that make the salad Spanish, though the olives are of the sliced California variety commonly found on pizzas, and the oranges are canned Mandarins. The peaches are canned, too, for that matter, and lettuce is iceberg. I'd be tempted to offer "Clean Out the Pantry Salad" as a tongue-in-cheek name, but for one fact: in its own homey way, the Spanish salad is delightful.

It's also representative of the crazy quilt of a menu at Meelo's, which in turn is a reflection of the background and exuberant personality of owner/chef Andre Chabaneix. The pastas and other Italian dishes that make up the bulk of the offering are culinary souvenirs of the 10 years he spent in Emilia-Romagna. A sprinkling of dishes such as shrimp mojo de ajo and croque monsieur (made on a panini grill) are nods to Chabaneix's Spanish mother and French father. Gyros are holdovers from Meelo's previous incarnation as a Greek restaurant. (Chabaneix bought the restaurant in January 2008 and reopened it in April after painting the walls with Italian murals and generally sprucing up the place. But he couldn't afford to change the name.) Crab cakes, chicken salad and such -- well, I suppose they're on the menu because the chef likes them.

If this sounds too confusing, there's a simple solution. If the place isn't busy, Chabaneix (who frequently pops in and out of the kitchen) will likely offer that solution: forget the menu. Instead, let him cook tapas for you, working with what he has in the kitchen.

If he has baby lamb chops, he'll bring out a brace of them, grilled a juicy medium rare, atop a small mound of mashed potatoes and a drizzle of 20-year aged balsamic vinegar. And he'll charge you an eminently reasonable $8.95. Scallops might take the form of conchitas, a Peruvian dish that frames the briny-sweet flavor of the shellfish in an exquisitely simple broth of melted butter, lemon juice and a dusting of parmesan. Chorizo gets cut on the bias and grilled, then tossed with garbanzo beans in a rich sauce laced with a last-second splash of red wine.

If, after a while, Chabaneix judges you to be sufficiently adventurous of palate, he might even suggest beef heart. And if you're bold enough to accept, you'll be rewarded with bite-size pieces whose texture isn't nearly as chewy as you'd thought they'd be, and whose beefy, iron-rich flavor is balanced by a pungent, vinegar-spiked sauce.

A little too adventurous, you say? Well, there's always the menu, which, in theory, is the safer option. In practice, however, I found the execution of the menu offering to be inconsistent. One night, linguine alle erbette was a gratifyingly straightforward medley of al dente linguine, toasted garlic, Italian herbs and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes tossed in olive oil and sprinkled with parmesan. On another occasion, both the penne and the peppers were overcooked in a pasta dish that also featured Italian sausage in a marinara sauce.

I'd steer clear of the crab cakes, too. The menu's claim that they're made with "Just CRAB!" may well be true, but the crabmeat was fishy-tasting both times I tried it.

Under no circumstances, however, should you miss the tiramisu, if it's available. Even if you happen to be allergic to one of the ingredients -- ladyfingers soaked in rum and espresso, a cloud-like blend of zabaglione and mascarpone, a dusting of cocoa -- you should take home a piece for a friend. That friend will owe you big time.

In short, the execution of Meelo's menu is as all over the map as the origins of the dishes themselves. Still, with Andre Chabaneix as your tour guide, it's a fun adventure. Especially if you let him take you on a detour into tapas territory.