Mixed tandoori grill
You're in Pasadena and you can't stand the thought of waiting for two hours until the Cheesecake Factory's plastic buzzer goes off, inducing simultaneous panic and joy with its spastic flashing and buzzing. Staring at Buca di Beppo's cluttered walls is bound to worsen your hunger headache. You're so over paying $7 for a roll at Sushi Roku. Ingesting miniscule portions of cheese-cooked meat over the course of three hours at The Melting Pot will never fill you up. You want to get away from crowded Colorado Boulevard and enjoy a quiet, delicious meal. Citysearch is, as always, next to useless. Where do you go?
Tucked away on slightly-less-crowded Fair Oaks, this gem of a restaurant has been wowing diners for close to twenty five years with its attentive service and a great selection of flavorful dishes. On Friday and Saturday nights, they even have live Indian music, and the low lighting and tablecloths make the restaurant nice enough for a date. The reasonably priced wine list is extensive and designed to pair nicely with curries, and beer lovers can choose from several Indian brews.
Mezbaan offers several combination plates for those who like to try multiple dishes. We tried the mixed tandoori grill, which contains chicken tikka, lamb tikka, tandoori chicken, fish kabab, and seekh kabab. Though I ordered it spicy, it definitely didn't make my lips tingle. At first I thought that perhaps spice-rubbed meat was difficult to make truly spicy, but then I remembered the fiery lamb chops I ate in San Francisco and decided I had been given the white girl special once again. Lack of searing heat aside, the meat was tasty.
Two of us ordered the vegetarian combination, but they didn't give us each our own dishes, which was a bit of a problem for three reasons: one, I didn't know the person I was sharing them with; two, it makes taking home leftovers problematic, since lots of us regularly dine with people we don't live with; and three, she wanted her food mild, and I wanted mine spicy. The waiter only asked her how spicy she wanted the food, and didn't explain the serving method ahead of time. I was foiled again--my veggies weren't terribly spicy, either. Lesson: if you order the same dish as someone else at your table and you want your very own custom spiced dish, make sure to ask for it.
Troubles with spiciness aside, the palaak paneer in particular was excellent--perhaps the best I've ever had. Maybe that was because it was rich with tomatoes, which many recipes aren't. The baigan bhartha's long-simmered eggplant pieces had seemingly completely dissolved into the sauce. This is great for people who don't normally like eggplant, because the dish isn't slimy or squishy at all. However, if you're an eggplant lover, you might be disappointed, and if you don't like onions, you should definitely avoid this dish--the onions seem more plentiful than the eggplant.
I don't usually like dal, because most recipes seem to use overwhelming amounts of turmeric and/or another acrid spice that dries out my tongue and leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It's too bad Mezbaan has a set list for the vegetarian combo, rather than letting you choose your own dishes. All of the combination plates come with warm, fluffy rice and fresh, chewy naan.
Pickles and mango chutney are an extra $3. I always find mango chutney overly sweet, like jam, but I adored the pickles and ate half a jar of them. Some pickles are so sour they make you cringe, too spicy, or so salty that you get an entire week's worth of sodium in two bites. Mezbaan's pickles were perfect. If you've never tried Indian pickles before, I highly recommend them--they are an intense experience not to be missed. Indian pickles come in all forms, including carrots, limes, and green beans. Mezbaan serves a mixture of all of these. Watch out for the chiles.
On Fridays and Saturdays from 7-10pm, Mezbaan has live traditional Indian music. I was worried that it might be too loud and take away from the social aspect of our dinner, but the music blended in with the atmosphere perfectly, contributing to our meal without banging its fist on our table and demanding attention.
Entrees are around $12 and combination plates are around $18. If you want to spend less, hit the lunch buffet. While Mezbaan's prices are on the high side for Indian food, they're very reasonable considering the excellent quality of the food, service, and atmosphere. It's very rare that a restaurant shines in all three of these areas, but it's easy to see why Mezbaan has been open since 1982. Though I had some issues with my food not being spicy enough, it shouldn't be too hard to make sure they don't skimp on the scovilles next time. I can't wait to go back.
80 North Fair Oaks Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91103
Dinner 5pm-10pm daily
Lunch buffet Mon-Fri 11am-2:30pm
Champagne brunch Sun 12pm-3pm
Mezbaan website (with menu)