I have had good food ruined by incompetent service, and vice versa. Some meals are spoiled by their hefty price tag. Some restaurants fail by trying to do too much, when they should just let the food stand on its own. I’ve had dining experience marred by loud music, filthy dining rooms and — I kid you not — paint fumes. In short, there are a huge number of little things that can detract from an otherwise great meal.
Today I report an entirely novel flaw, and likely the most petty to date: A horrible, awful, disgusting name. The excellent new noodle house on Howe Street near Elm, which serves up a mouthwatering variety of dumplings, noodles and soups, has the great misfortune of being called East Melange. But this flaw is by no means fatal, and East Melange offers an extensive menu of well-prepared dishes at prices that will keep you coming back, in spite of the idiotic name.
I don’t like to review restaurants by comparison, but East Melange begs — no, screams — for it. East Melange is what would happen if Ivy Noodle got a haircut, shaved and quit hanging out with the wrong crowd. The food is slightly better and slightly more expensive (by $1 or $2) across the board. Everything is a little less greasy and a bit more flavorful. And East Melange is open until 2 a.m. every night except Sunday (10 p.m.). The hallowed Noodle might be in trouble.
The fare is relatively standard: dumplings, lo mein, fried rice, noodle soups. Even General Tso makes a cameo. The variety can be a bit overwhelming, and the wait staff offers little help beyond “good,” “meat” and “vegetable.” Still, no dishes I ordered were awful, so give everything a try.
The dumplings are the best thing at East Melange, and the best dumplings are the Shanghai buns ($4.50). These four balls of seasoned pork wrapped in chewy dough are served in their own bamboo steamer and accompanied by a ginger-vinegar dipping sauce. Dumpling heaven. You can also get more standard dumplings — meat or veggie, steamed or fried. The meat dumplings are best fried ($4.50) and are a little drier and less doughy than the Shanghai buns.
Steamed vegetable dumplings ($4.25) are tender pockets of Chinese vegetables (mushrooms, broccoli, greens) and even though they give you dumpling sauce for them, I recommend dousing them with the vinegar that’s available at every table. Less pleasing are the shu mai ($3.95), which have too much meat for their thin dough and, as one of my dinner companions wisely observed, taste like hot dogs — not a sought-after quality in dumplings.
Chicken lo mein ($4.50) is nothing special and tastes a little too much like the peanut oil it was cooked in. A better bet is chicken with crispy noodles and vegetables ($5.75), which tastes fresh and savory. The noodles are crispy throughout, and though the dish is heavily salted, it’s not greasy in the least.
The soup menu at East Melange works on a mix and match basis. Pick a soup, then a type of noodles, then a meat (or tofu). For a hot pick-me-up on a cold day, go with the curry noodle soup ($4.75). The broth is creamy, with just the right amount of heat to clear your sinuses.
If you’ve never given Chinese-style greens a try before, this is a good place to start. Crunchy and far from bitter, Chinese greens can win over even the most hard-bitten of spinach spurners. Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce ($4.25) is a good choice, but East Melange has a wide variety to choose from, including lettuce, watercress and the now-apt “spring vegetables.”
There were a few low points on my recent visits: Service is spotty and unpredictable. Servers are kind without exception, but they lacked a sense of when to come around and when to leave us alone. A waiter tried to take our order 17 seconds after we sat down, but he was nowhere to be found when we wanted the check. The restaurant also seems to have bought their chairs at the Spanish Inquisition surplus store. They feature backs that come down at such an extreme angle directly into your coccyx that you feel like you’re being pushed onto the floor. A mango bubble tea ($2.50) had so much sugar dumped into it that my teeth will be hurting for another six weeks.
But these problems are as silly as the restaurant’s name, and they may just be suffering from new restaurant jitters. East Melange is a classy Ivy Noodle — that is not to say that lack of class is inherently negative, but at least we now have a choice. It is a solidly good restaurant through-and-through, and I’ll certainly be going back. I think they’ve got a good shot at becoming a New Haven staple, so I have just two questions:
“East Melange?” Really?