Think Chipotle... but Indian food instead of Mexican. In fact, Merzi Founder and CEO Kaz even compared his vision to that of Chipotle's, but his goals are quite lofty in that he hopes Merzi will make Indian food accessible to the masses and something that can be enjoyed by all. The new outpost is located on a busy street in Washington's Chinatown which will create a large amount of foot traffic from the Verizon Center. Kaz expressed that many people are scared of Indian food and assume that they don't like it because they are not familiar with the names or sauces, but he believes his new restaurant will solve this problem.
The space is simple yet inviting, reminiscent of upscale fast food. The ordering is based on an assembly line of sorts where you start by picking your base: a naan roll, rice bowl, chaat which is a blend of vegetables, yogurt, and chutney, or a salad. Next it is time to pick your meat which can be chicken, beef, shrimp, lamb (which is organic from New Zealand), tandisserie chicken (tandoori seasoned chicken cooked rotisserie-style), or vegetarian. Finally, it's time for the fixins' and sauces which includes your choice of chickpeas, black eyed peas, green peppers, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, and then either hot, medium, or mild sauce or chutney. The process is simple, straightforward, and painless, and will hopefully allow those not familiar with Indian food to give it a try as the ingredients are all right in front of you and most of them are well known items. Merzi also offers some tasty treats on the side such as the potato tikka patty and extra naan to soak up all the delicious sauce. And the price? Under $10.00 for the most part, and quite a filling meal.
So, for my first go at the Merzi menu I went for the naan roll base, tandisserie chicken, chickpeas, green peppers, red onions, corn, tomato and cucumber salad, yogurt sauce, and the mild chutney which is sweet and tangy made of tamarind and dates. I also had a potato tikka on the side made with paneer (Indian cheese), potato, and Indian spices. I really enjoyed the tandisserie chicken, I got a whole chicken breast and was able to choose white meat which was full of flavor and went so well with the sauce and vegetables. What I like best about Merzi is the amount of possible combinations that can be made to build your meal, leaving you already thinking about what you'll be having on your next visit.
Kaz quit his successful job to open Merzi because he believes that he can start a revolution. Even their website has a section called the Merzi Revolution which says "bite by bite, Merzi is changing the way Indian cuisine is served and eaten. Our Indian-inspired meals are simple to order and healthy, yet fresh, flavorful and delicious." And only a few weeks into opening and he already showed me a list of other potential locations that he is hoping to expand to. Although nothing final, some of the top spots look to be Columbia Heights and Arlington which seem like great choices for people looking for fast and casual dining that is a little more adventurous than your average Cosi or Chop't.
So now for the elephant in the room. One block over from Merzi is not only one of the best restaurants in the city, but Rasika is an upscale Indian establishment that serves amazing food. You might be wondering how or if both of these places can survive within the same space, and my answer is a definitive yes. The two aren't even similar and really cannot be compared because of their different goals and varying experiences. Merzi will never take away the class and upscale environment that Rasika provides, or the sophistication of their food. And Rasika will never attempt to be a casual fast food joint that serves the masses. Therefore, both can live in harmony together and make patrons happy across all walks of life.
I hope to see Merzi do well because it is a homegrown eatery that has an ambitious dream. And although the food is not the fanciest or the most sophisticated, it still allows for everyday people who have never tried Indian food before to change their view and expand their horizons. And I can't see how that could ever be a bad thing.