One of our occasional favorites on the local dining scene is a tapas place: Candela Tapas Lounge in Hanover (you can read my review of them here), but it’s not the only place in the area doing “Pan-Latin inspired tapas”. Melaza Bistro over in Woodstock, Vermont, serves up “Caribbean tapas & entrees”, and has been a perennial item on our “places in the Upper Valley to check out” (early in its history, there was some involvement from the current owner of Candela, but the businesses are completely separate now). So when we recently had to celebrate a birthday, we decided to finally check out Melaza.
Located on Central Street in Woodstock on the south side of the street on the “restaurant row” just down from Pane e Salute (where I was never able to successfully score a reservation despite many efforts) and Mont Vert Cafe (a pleasant breakfast joint), Melaza has a nice bar and restaurant space decorated with a subdued Caribbean theme, although we ended up getting seated in a dark back corner of the restaurant. Still, after a few minutes of browsing the cocktail list, with a good set of rum-centered drinks, we were enjoying a well-executed Mojito and a Puerto-Rican-style Pina Colada.
While the overall theme at Melaza is tapas, the menu is actual more of a 50/50 mix of small plates and large plates, so I suspect we did the same as most diners and selected a handful of small plates as appetizers, and then a large plate each as a main dish. Both of the small plates we chose were quite enjoyable. First out was a coconut shrimp, served up with a slightly spicy mango sauce. I rather enjoyed these: the coconut breading was light and crispy, and, most importantly, the shrimp was fresh and cooked to perfection. I’d easily get these again. The other small plate was saffron rice fritters, and these were basically a Caribbean version of the Italian arancini: balls of arborio rice wrapped around a core of cheese, panko-breaded, fried up, and served with a Cuban style mojo-criollo sauce instead of an Italian tomato sauce. Again, rather nicely executed: a nice, crispy wrapper around a core of rice and cheese. We both ended up enjoying them quite well.
Shortly thereafter, my main course arrived: the slow-roasted guava-glazed pork shank. Another Cuban-inspired dish, this was a very nicely done, fully soft and tender pork shank, cooked up with a pleasant rum and guava glaze that just oozed into the pork as it was cooking, resulting in some very pleasant forkfuls of rich pork flavor with hints of tangy guava and a bit of caramelization, this was a very enjoyable dish. This was served up with a fried green plaintain chip up top over some vegetables and a bit of a mild cabbage slaw (which I’ve since discovered is also one of those Cuban things). Overall, a good dish, and I can see why they list this as their signature dish. I’d happily have this again.
Meanwhile, Carol opted for the Caribbean-style filet mignon, and this was a pleasant variation on the basic “steak and potatoes”: a nicely-executed medium-rare filet served up with some good garlic mashed potatoes and a really nicely done rioja-based demi-glace, topped with some crispy onion straws. Aside from filet itself, the star here was a pleasant and flavorful demi-glace.
Overall, we really liked the food at Melaza, and I do plan to come back at some point and try out a few more of their menu items (like other table’s “Arroz con Pollo y Sofrito”, which looked like a very nice rendition of the classic Puerto Rican dish), and their capable cocktail list. I should, however, take a minute to talk about service. The service at Melaza was a little disappointing. It started with, despite the restaurant being nearly completely empty, being placed in a cramped table nestled into a very dark corner when there were literally dozens of better tables available. It wasn’t quite the Victory Brewing Table of Shame, but it’s still baffling to me that restaurants do this. Our server also triggered one of my service peeves (which are probably deserving of a writeup of their own): never having any evening specials disclosed to us. It’s somewhat frustrating to see the couple after you, who, without reservations, get greeted warmly, ushered over to a pleasant, well-lit, and spacious table, and then have a series of chef’s specials described to them, most of which sound like items I would have ordered and enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, our meal was pleasant enough, but it’s experiences like this that knock Melaza down a peg or two from how I’d otherwise rate them. An unwritten rule of Upper Valley dining is “don’t be picky”, but still, I’d like to see Melaza take their service up a notch.