MELA MODERN INDIAN CUISINE (459 Church, at Maitland, 416-916-6104) Complete lunches for $12 per person (dinners $35), including all taxes, tip and a glass of ice water. Average main $10 (à la carte). Open for daily $8.99 lunch buffet Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4:30 pm. A la carte dinner Tuesday to Thursday 5 to 10:30 pm, Friday 5 to 11 pm, Saturday 4:30 to 11 pm, Sunday 4:30 to 10:30 pm. Pride weekend, open Saturday and Sunday for lunch buffet 11 am to 4 pm, for à la carte dinner 4 pm to 2 am. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Pride takes a lot of preparation. Besides a silly haircut, a water cannon and a three-day supply of what Ontario Minister of Health George Smitherman euphemistically refers to as party drugs, you also need a place to stuff your face as quickly and cheaply as possible. We don't want all those costly intoxicants to go to waste, now, do we?
Launched a little while back in the Church Street bistro that formerly housed Trattorio al Forno, Mela Modern Indian Cuisine's daily $8.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet makes it the perfect pit stop for Pride refuelling.
Sure, there are better Subcontinental spreads in town (Dhaba on King, Trimurti on Queen, to name but two), but Mela is located right on the Village's main drag and charges as much for a complete meal as most clip joints in the area do for subpar salad.
As Amy Winehouse's Rehab appropriately plays over the sound system, the Literary Device and I commandeer a table in Mela's large front window that opens to the street. Six steps up from street level, is there a better Pride vantage point in the nabe?
With Lindsay Lohan's words of wisdom - "Never party on an empty stomach" - in mind, we find a standard steam table set-up at the rear under a golden statue of a multi-armed god dancing like Britney Spears in her Toxic video. It's pretty basic stuff, and there's nothing particularly modern about it: the inevitable tandoori and butter chicken, a half-dozen vegetable curries, a small DIY salad bar, a few condiments and a couple of desserts.
On the first of several trips to the buffet, we pile our plates with moist 'n' pink barbecued chicken thighs coated in a thicker-than-most dressing. Tastier, too.
Mela's butter chicken may be more sauce than bird, but once a basket of remarkably crisp naan arrives at table, we're glad it is, its nutty tomato cream the ideal counterpart to the cracker-like flatbread. At most Indian eateries naan plays a secondary role, but at Mela the butter-brushed bread's the star.
At noon, the vibrant green broccoli masala comes surprisingly al dente, but we have the feeling it'll be mush by 2 pm. Cabbage curry with caraway seeds, too, has a nice crunch; the chickpea chana swirled with raita is firm and far from overcooked; but pakoras are leaden Timbits best avoided despite the house's accompanying tart tamarind dunk.
After a second basket of Mela's exemplary naan, the Device and I finish with bowls of ras malai, rosewater-scented balls of cheesy paneer in sweet cardamom cream. The Device notices an espresso machine behind the bar and asks our otherwise accommodating server for a cappuccino. The request brings a deer-in-headlights stare.
"How about just a coffee, then?" the Device proposes.
After retreating to the kitchen for help, our server returns with a chap in tow who looks like he hasn't a clue how the machine works either. The resultant cup ($1.99) suggests so.
"This is the worst cup of coffee I've ever had," the Device splutters, likening her miserable brew to coffee-flavoured hot water.
But, then, I remind my foodie friend, who drinks coffee on Pride weekend?