After 15 years, Owner-Chef Bernard Ros has developed a loyal clientele among local residents and a reputation for good, moderately priced fare that draws visitors from the 12 hotels that surround Meli Melo his French-Mediterranean restaurant on Madison Avenue in Murray Hill.
The changing economy has meant changes in the restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it by the menu, except for the prices. Meli Melo’s dinner entrees range between $14 and $26, and Ros has managed to adhere to his philosophy of providing distinctive, well-proportioned dishes.
They range from organic chicken breast and organic Niman Ranch pork scallopini to roasted duck, New York shell steak, seafood and a half-dozen pasta dishes.
“Expensive items like South African sea bass, the golden lobster tail, the caviar, the foie gras, all this stuff we put to the side. We put out a menu that is more accessible,” he says.
“We have to compete. Today, people come in, and they are shopping for a price. They look at the menu. If the price is right, they come in. This week four people asked, ‘How much is the wine?’ We never heard that before.”
A Menu to Match the Times
In the current economy, all restaurants are being forced to make compromises. “When it comes to buying you have to be careful what you buy,” Ros cautions. “Make sure you have been doing business with them to make sure what they are selling you is the real McCoy.”
Ros has been in the restaurant business in New York for 43 years and he says he has the relationships to guarantee that quality is not being sacrificed. “They see that we aren’t taking advantage and we are doing a food-for-recession menu. Instead of seeing them once a month, we still see them three times a week,” he said.
What’s nice about Meli Melo is that it has the feel of a French bistro, without the crass commercialism or affectations and high prices that can be found at so many bistros targeting the tourists in Midtown. The dining room here is white table cloth, but hardly pretentious.
A whimsical and creatively interpreted map of the world covers one wall. Many of the patrons are French, which is always a good sign, and many are locals who call out to Bernard by name, another good sign.
The appetizers include tuna tartar, grilled Portabello mushrooms with smoked mozzarella, onion tarte with gorgonzola and pancetta, crab cakes with remoulade sauce, smoked salmon, baby octopus with canelli beans and escargots in baby bliss potatoes. I go for the latter, which is a twist on escargot I haven’t seen before.
The potatoes substitute for the shell. They are carved out and filled with escargot, a nice touch and a well matched combination of flavors.
The starter menu also includes mesclun salad with house vinaigrette, asparagus vinaigrette and the usual suspects, tomato and fresh mozzarella and basil and Caesar salad. As Ros says, he is sticking to the basics with another twist.
“What I do, is French-Mediterranean, I mix French and Italian cuisine, which is quite unusual in New York City. You go French or you go Italian. We do both,” he says. Reflecting its Mediterranean roots, Meli Melo also specializes in seafood. “I’m a seafood freak,” Ros says. “We do our sauces from scratch.”
That’s enough to sell me on Meli Melo’s fisherman’s stew, or bouillabaisse, a house specialty. Although the dish is said to have originated in Marseilles, every fishing village throughout the coastal regions of Provence boasts of their own recipe.
In fact, the dish is said to have been served during the days of the Roman Empire. In mythology, Venus supposedly served bouillabaisse to her husband Vulcan to lull him to sleep while she consorted with Mars.
Meli Melo’s bouillabaisse is made from scratch, says Ros. My dish contained four jumbo shrimp skewered across the top of the bowl with cod, clams and other seafood in a broth with garlic aioli and fresh basil. It was hearty and ample.
Other seafood entrées included an Atlantic salmon steak coated with lemon rind and served with mung beans, and bell pepper vinaigrette. The sautéed black cod is served Mediterranean style; a filet of sole is combined with smoked salmon and sautéed shrimp is served with garlic on a bed of fresh spinach. The entrees range between $18 and $24.
Desserts Get Special Attention
If the deserts seem to get special attention at Meli Melo, it’s because Ros is the pastry chef and personally oversees the menu. All the desserts are $8.50 and range from the standard apple tart, thin crusted and slow baked, to crème brulee, New York cheese cake and white and dark chocolate mousse cake. The crepes are a house specialty and include a crepes Suzette with lemon-orange rind and Grand Marnier sauce, while the crepe maison comes with Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
The chocolate mousse cake leaves a lasting impression of rich and sweet, creamy and dense — all things I look for in fine French cooking.
“Today more than ever the value is more important,” and Ros is on site, seven days a week, day night and evening to keep things running smoothly. “There’s not one day you come in I’m not here,” he laughs. “I watch every dish from the kitchen coming out. If it gets too busy I jump into the kitchen.”
This is not an airy brasserie or the next Pastis. There is no pretension, just passion. Oh, and a little je ne sais quoi.
110 Madison Avenue (Btwn 29th & 20th Streets)