Sometimes you can just tell when a restaurant has something special going on. That was my impression within five minutes of sitting down at the newly opened Mehfil Indo-Mughlai Pak Cuisine. There’s nothing obvious about its charm from the outside, with a small vinyl banner the only sign that anything new has come to the former Dixie Café location on Rodney Parham. But after just one plate of Indian and Pakistani food at the 30+ foot buffet, it becomes pretty clear that you’ll be adding Mehfil to your regular dining rotation.
“Mehfil means like a party,” said owner Daljit Singh, who also runs Tour of India in Conway. “So we came up with this name where we have two countries, two foods gather. So when people come, they have a variety of food to eat.”
Singh, who also goes by the American moniker “Charlie,” has hired a chef from India and a chef from Pakistan who work simultaneously in the kitchen. Each is responsible for preparing the food from their native land. That means every lunch buffet (and Friday dinner buffet) always features both Indian and Pakistani food. Some of the Pakistani entrees, in particular, can’t be found anywhere else in the Little Rock area
“We have a Beef Haleem [slow-cooked beef with barley lentils], we have Beef Nihari [spiced beef shanks],” said Singh. “We have a Goat Paya [goat feet]. And we have a Kunna [slow-cooked mutton]. So a lot of Pakistani people, they know what Kunna is, what Nihari is. Nobody around here has it, and we put it on our weekend buffet.”
Obviously, Mehfil will be a special blessing to Pakistani transplants living in Central Arkansas, but in my opinion the restaurant has something for everybody. So far, I’ve only checked out the buffet; Mehfil has a more formal, sit-down dinner service every night except Friday. However, I can tell you that Mehfil’s food is simply gorgeous. The colors just pop off the mint chutney and Chicken Tikka Masala, and every dish is presented with visual style in mind. Mehfil’s buffet also tends to be less spicy than you might anticipate, though there is a special Indian spicy sauce that you can use to liven things up more.
But we need to talk about my two favorite items, the first of which is the naan. Naan bread is served at every Indian restaurant in town, but Mehfil’s beats them all. Singh tells me all the restaurant’s naan is cooked fresh in a tandoor oven to order, and it shows. Hot, crisp and soft, you will be tempted to eat way too much of it. At lunch, an order of regular naan or garlic naan comes free with the buffet; at dinner, the regular naan is only $2. And then at the end of the meal is the traditional Indian dessert Gulab Jamun. I’ve had these little pastries everywhere (including while I was in India), but again Mehfil just does it better. The “secret,” if you can call it that, is keeping the gulab jamun hot until it is served. The little treats just dissolve to the bite, creating a rush of satisfying sweetness.
“We really try to create something fresh for people, even during our buffet,” said Singh. “We don’t want to lose that fresh flavor no matter what. We want people to come visit us, come try us. We know you will love it.”
Mehfil takes advantage of its large space with a full bar and two separate dining rooms that it can open up for busy nights or close off for private events. On my first visit, a party of more than 30 people stopped in and had no trouble getting their food and drinks quickly. The buffet is seven days a week for lunch and on Friday night. Dinner service all other nights is a sit-down experience. If you can’t tell yet, I really think Mehfil is fantastic. It’s certainly exciting to have Pakistani food in Little Rock in the first place, but Mehfil’s quality and service mean this should go to the top of your must-try list in 2019.