RESTAURANT REVIEW Where East Meets West
Chanting the Praises (and Shortcomings) of Mantra
52 Temple Place, Boston, Ma 02111
(617) 542 8111
There is something intrinsically romantic and effortlessly cool about navigating the side streets of Downtown Crossing and slipping into an unassuming old bank building that opens up to the modern and impressive space that is Mantra. The restaurant and lounge specializes in French-Indian fusion but also serves a separate menu of traditional Indian cuisine. Everything about Mantra seems to appeal to a hip, trend-setting crowd, from young students and business professionals to young-at-heart executives.
Take the ambiance, for example. By combining the former bank’s original marble walls, high ceilings, and intricate mouldings with stylish colored lights and textured upholstery, Mantra avoids the stuffiness overplayed by other restaurants that hope their clay-red walls and dim lights automatically create intimacy. Mirrors and Buddha figures add a contemporary touch to the well-lit dining space, and airy drapery separates the bar. A giant, impossible-to-miss woven wood structure in the back serves as a tea lounge that can be booked for small private events. To add even more novelty, the bank’s vault door is located downstairs by the kitchen and restrooms. In short, Mantra looks nothing like your grandfather’s typical Friday night watering hole.
Before our food arrived, I had my doubts. After all, this is fusion food, where your accustomed notions of flavors and cooking styles come to die in the face of new blends of East and West that continually challenge your tongue. And by the end of our meal, my opinion of fusion cuisine had not changed. The menu, like the restaurant space itself, is divided into separate sections. The main menu features fusion dishes, further divided into a “Naan Bar” section, offering a variety of creatively-topped naan and tapas-style small appetizers, and a more traditional appetizer and entrée menu. A separate miniature binder holds the traditional Indian dishes.
My friend and I, eager to try something from every section of the menu, started with a trio of naan ($12). We selected the Green Chili and Smoked Mozzarella, Sundried Tomato and Rosemary, and Ginger and Honey flavors. The basic naan was soft and doughy, so I had to stop myself from filling up on them, especially the spicy green chili one (my favorite of the three). For the more adventurous, I encourage you to try the PB&J or Chocolate and Marshmallow flavors.
We opted for the Tuna Tartare ($16) as our appetizer from the fusion menu. It was our most disappointing dish of the night. The grisly tuna did not come from the best cuts and had a bland, fishy taste. The wedge of broiled grapefruit was a colorful accent piece but added nothing to the dish taste-wise. But I couldn’t hold it against them too much; after all, I had ordered a dish that was neither French nor Indian.
My friend ordered Mustard-Crusted Halibut ($32) with purple potato and cilantro-cashew pesto, an entrée from the fusion menu. Once again, the flavors lacked complexity. The dish tasted simply like fish and potatoes instead of the mingling of spices and rich herbs that I expected from Indian-inspired cuisine.
I had Jhinga Vindaloo ($20) from the traditional Indian menu, a shrimp and potato curry dish known to be very spicy yet somewhat sweet. The shrimp was succulent and well-cooked, and the sauce had just the right amount of heat (I have a high tolerance for hot foods and ordered it medium-spicy). Without a doubt, it surpasses most if not all other vindaloos in Boston. I was ready to consider it the best part of the meal.
That is, until dessert arrived. Our sampler plate let us try chocolate cake, passionfruit panna cotta, bread pudding, and homemade ice cream. Kudos to the dessert chef for ending our meal on a high note. All of the desserts were incredibly sophisticated, beautifully presented, and downright delicious. We agreed that the ice cream was the best we’ve ever had, and the chocolate cake with torched banana was rich and a show-stopper in its own right. Unfortunately, by this time, we were too full to finish dessert. “Why did I eat dinner?” my friend moaned as she eyed the last piece of panna cotta that she could no longer stomach.
From start to finish, our meal lasted three hours, with a significant portion of our time spent waiting for the next dish to arrive. Service is attentive and waiters are knowledgeable, friendly, and approachable, but food takes a long time to come out, even on a quiet Wednesday night. I highly recommend Mantra for a date, a classy night out, or a group function, as long as time is not a major issue (i.e. stop by for dinner and drinks after a show or movie, but not before). Two more lessons that I learned: fusion may be new and exciting, but classic dishes exist for a reason, and, most importantly, save room for dessert!