Editor's note: This article accompanies a profile of Mel Oza in Richmond magazine's October issue.
Since Lehja opened in the spring of 2010, the contemporary Indian restaurant in Short Pump has made a splash, winning the "To Diet For" award for its Gulab Jamun dessert at Broad Appetit in June; participating in the Varli Food Festival in New York City in April as well as Restaurant Week in Richmond; and earning a spot on Richmond magazine's Best New Restaurants lineup in January, as well as glowing restaurant reviews.
But the best is yet to come, says executive chef Mel Oza.
"In the first year, we wanted to gain a smooth entry," he says. "The level of sophistication we can hit, we have shied away from for now. The goal for the next year is to do more tasting menus, more of the cuisine that we are capable of."
Managing partner Sandeep "Sunny" Baweja says that Lehja (meaning "accent" or "style" in Urdu) is planning to debut weekly three-course prix fixe menus in October, and to offer a chef's tasting menu with optional wine pairings starting after Thanksgiving in November. The tasting menus, which can be customized for a group with advance notice, could feature up to nine courses, moving from cold items to soups or bisques to tandoori dishes and curries.
"To go more from Hollywood blockbuster to Broadway — that's the clientele we're after," Oza says, adding that Lehja wants to highlight some of the farms and specialty purveyors the restaurant works with to buy its spices and fish, for example. "We thought if we tried to do that in the first year, it may come across as a froufrou kind of place, stuffy."
Lehja's creators divided the menu into "contemporary" and "classic" dishes, so people who are used to ordering things like Chicken Tikka Masala at Indian restaurants wouldn't be put off by a lineup of unfamiliar items.
"The menu keeps changing, stressing fresh ingredients," Baweja says. Oza prefers to change 90 percent of a menu every year. And he says that the contemporary part of the menu, "To me is not contemporary enough."
For the classic dishes, Oza says, Lehja uses ingredients and flavors that would be served in India. For example, the restaurant's Kolmi No Patio, a Parsi prawn dish, uses jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), tamarind, chiles, ginger, cloves and basil in the sauce. The flavors are carefully balanced so that the heat of the chiles doesn't overpower the other flavors. "The best compliment I got was from a Parsi woman from Bombay [Mumbai]," he says. "She had the dish, then said it was just like she would have had in Bombay."
Oza also draws on other cooking techniques to re-create traditional Indian dishes such as the Punjabi-style Rara Lamb Curry. The sauce simmers for 16 hours, while the lamb is seared like it would be in a French restaurant, he says. "The sauce has a head start. Then the lamb and sauce get put together," he says. "We try to marry the best of the two approaches."
The modern dishes at Lehja are inspired by Indian flavors as well. A garlic-and-chili chutney, called thecha, that would be served as condiment in the Mumbai region, is used as a rub for sea bass before the fish is seared. And the Fire Cracker Chicken Tikka uses a marinade of "ghost chiles," or bhut jholokia, believed to be the world's hottest chile pepper. Oza also uses the peppers in braising duck legs and root vegetables.
As he explains it, Lehja is the top-tier restaurant for the group owned by Ashok Arora, including four Nawab restaurants in Hampton Roads (the base tier) and Azitra restaurants (the second tier) in Raleigh, N.C., and Broomfield, Colo. The Nawab restaurants serve more traditional Indian food. Oza, who oversees food and wine for the group, describes the Nawab restaurants as "bread-and-butter places [that] helped us open these other ones and venture out."
Lehja's emphasis on wine, featuring 200 selections, earned it a 2011 Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. "Most of our wines go with our food, but we also have a selection of popular wines, cocktailing wines," Oza says. "Among Indian restaurants I know, that I've been to in the U.S., no one to my knowledge has a list this deep, written correctly."
For him, "wine is a personal hobby, a passion." He has worked his way up to the third of four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers, refining his ability to identify wines by region, variety, vintage and price.
A personal favorite of his, a red Burgundy by Albert Bichot, is available by the glass at Lehja. He has visited several of the Bichot vineyards in Beaune, France.
On the late-August evening when I visited Lehja to talk with Oza, he was working with the kitchen crew on adjusting the size of cut zucchini. Chopping the zucchini into slightly larger pieces keeps it from getting too mushy, he said.
"Americans like vegetables crunchy, not soggy" Oza explained. "It's the opposite for Indians, who think we didn't even bother cooking them. We're trying to find a happy medium."