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Tashan chef Mel Oza.
Tashan chef Mel Oza.Courtesy Photo

Mel Oza, 55, moved to Burlington from Virginia to help with Tashan, an upscale Indian restaurant and cocktail bar slated to open in Bedford in the coming weeks. He’s originally from Pondicherry, India, where he played semi-professional cricket.

“Because of that, I got the travel bug and the dining-out bug, and I changed my career to be in this industry. I had peaked, cricket-wise,” he says, laughing. He relocated to the United States in 1998 and comes to Bedford from Charlottesville, Va., where he ran Kanak Indian Kitchen.

Why did you choose Bedford? Talk to me a little bit about this location.

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There was nothing in Bedford specifically like this. With the affluence, the awareness, that this town has, it was missing.

Tell me about how you interpret the Indian food scene in Boston. What gap are you filling?

The gap we are trying to fill is redefined classics — so, familiar Indian foods done right or done better, for lack of a better term. We don’t want to be hoity-toity, gastro-modern, if you will, in the molecular sense. But oftentimes I’ve eaten around here, and even simple things are sometimes not done the right or best possible way. So that’s our immediate and key focus for our à la carte menu.

The experience is beyond that. We will deliver a prix fixe or tasting menu, which will be more modern and left-leaning. There will be more courses. You can show a whole crescendo of techniques and flavors.

For the average person who might not know what that means, give me an example of some of the dishes. What might be different here than at other restaurants in the area?

Absolutely. We do have familiar things like chicken tikka masala and saag paneer, which we hope to be different and better than the rest. But then I have some of my own signature things. There’s a dish called seafood medley, and the [coconut] sauce is very delicate and refined, and the focus is on the pristine-ness of the seafood — but through and through, an Indian dish. It incorporates shellfish, crab, things like that. The sauce enhances the seafood rather than competing and cannibalizing it. The difference is in what I call “flavor correctors.”

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I put green grapes in the dish, and some black mission figs. This brings a little depth and a little tart sweetness to cut through that coconut sauce. Also, there’s finely diced green mango to bring the acid. Within one bowl, you can mix and match different things and experience different flavors.

Let’s talk a little bit about your background, because that’s part of the fun of these interviews. Tell me about your culinary history and how you came to the restaurant business.

Sure. I went to IHM [Indian Institute of Hotel Management and Culinary Arts] — that’s India’s premier culinary institute — way back in the ’80s. I left India in the late ’80s, and I started working in the UK beginning with a French restaurant, not an Indian restaurant. Then I’ve lived in the States since the late ’90s.

I worked initially in Virginia and Chicago. Then I had a restaurant of my own in Richmond called Curry Craft, which I sold in 2015. And I’ve always had my own consultancy business. I helped start up many restaurants all across the US of a similar genre to what we’re doing. The latest one I did right before coming here was a place called Kanak in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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What led you up north?

I have a deep respect for a restaurant in this region that no longer exists: Mantra, downtown. Since then, I haven’t heard of anything noteworthy to happen in this region, east of New York. I always had my eyes on it but never found the right opportunity or project to collaborate. [Tashan] has the most forward-thinking approach, while still bringing familiar and friendlier things for people who might not be so well-versed in Indian food.

[Cocktails] were a big opportunity in this restaurant, because we wanted the beverage program to go hand-in-hand with the food program. This allowed me that opportunity, too. That’s what gave me the temptation to come here.

From your perspective as a chef, do you think the suburbs will become more popular after the pandemic? What’s your take on running a suburban versus an urban restaurant?

Most of my ventures that I consider really good business successes primarily have been suburban. Except for New York City and maybe a couple in D.C., you seldom see a [downtown] Indian restaurant outlast seven to 10 years — but, in the suburbs, there have been many that still continue to thrive. In the suburbs, there’s also the higher net disposable income that factors in. Another reason that an Indian restaurant will be popular in the suburbs is they’re suited to family dining. People feel more comfortable bringing kids and family.

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Do you think that’s true for restaurants across the board?

I would definitely say so — unless some are so left-leaning, trying too hard, then it just doesn’t resonate with people. For me to improvise, let’s say palak paneer, first, I need to bring familiarity to palak paneer and then get the validation that mine is better than some or others. Then, if I improvise, there’s a relation point. But if I come with a version that nobody has seen, or they don’t even understand the dish at its core? That’s why some other restaurants, I think, don’t make the best of the opportunity.

As a chef who’s worked in various parts of the country, what do you think is unique about this area in terms of our culinary scene?

To me, it’s the demographics and the mix — the dynamic mix. There seems to be a really, really big core crowd who has traveled all over, who still continue to travel everywhere, so they can place [food] correctly in their mind. Talking to people locally, they are adventurous. Even if we’re not open, there are a number of people who pull on our door handle or try to come in without any announcement. They embrace diversity and variety.

How has COVID-19 affected your plans?

I was supposed to be here June 1, 2020. In May 2020, we didn’t even know: When will this go forward? What will happen? Would it be six months, two years? But then a spot opened up, and the landlord was willing for us to go and get started while waiting the pandemic out. That actually helped us a lot, because we could build anticipation. Construction had opened up, so we didn’t wait for the pandemic to be completely over to start. In that sense, it helped.

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In staffing terms, it hurt. We’ve been trying every avenue and every lead that’s been given to us. Definitely, it’s hard to get people to even show up for scheduled interviews and things like that. We’ve had a couple of great successes for hiring, and we had a couple people who just didn’t want to stick with it because it wasn’t their cup of tea.

What do you think the dining scene will be like this summer?

This summer, it will be busy. A lot of people have been waiting for us to open. We’ll get that honeymoon period and all that. But we [need to] send the message that we’re not staffed in an ideal way. We’d like to spread a message somehow to our guests that we’re working on it behind the scenes. We’ll do our best given the situation. We might have to limit the number of reservations we take. We might have to modify the menu slightly to deliver the best given the staff potential on hand. We’re working and tinkering.

A couple of fun things: favorite pandemic snack?

Oh, many things. I’ll have to say spice-roasted nuts. It will be at our bar-side menu. We call them masala cashews. I carry them in my car.

What’s your favorite thing to binge-watch?

“Connected.” Also, I loved watching Zac Efron’s series “Down to Earth.”

Interview has been edited and condensed.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.