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[Dining Out]

Mantra
Find enlightenment in trans-ethnic food
BY ROBERT NADEAU

dining out
Mantra
(617) 542-8111
52 Temple Place, Boston
Open Mon–Fri, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Sat, 5:30–10:30 p.m.
AE, DC, Di, MC, Vi
Full bar
Valet parking available
Sidewalk-level access via narrow door

Mantra was expected to open almost six months before it actually did, in June. Despite all that expecting, it is not at all what I anticipated. The advance descriptions implied a fusion-food restaurant under the same Asian-Indian ownership as Diva and Kashmir. I guessed that the Indian food would be better than the fusion food, and that the design would evoke the days of the Raj.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Mantra’s avant-garde design evokes the most experimental restaurants in New York City, and there is no Indian or fusion food per se; the food is " trans-ethnic, " with platonic, pure flavors and geometric shapes. Mantra is expensive, fascinating, intellectual, and scandalous. The small portions and visual surprises are reminiscent of the most extreme " nouvelle cuisine " of the 1980s, but weirder and colder, much as techno is to disco.

You enter under a painfully narrow stainless sign that might read mantra in some spacey alphabet. After being greeted by several ectomorphic women with mysterious accents, you reach the main dining room, which was once the lobby of the Old Colony Trust Bank. What’s left of the bank is some marble wall details (echoed in the marble bar) and some moldings around the high ceiling. Behind that marble bar is a lot of oddly cut, funhouse-mirror work. In the back room sits a 15-foot-high irregular cone made of slats of dark wood, like a giant beehive realized in Swedish Modern. It is the " Hookah Bar, " where you can spend an hour on the red banquette inside, smoking fruit-flavored tobacco in a water pipe for $15. The room is broken up by some wire-mesh curtains. The background sound fluctuates between unfamiliar opera and unfamiliar electronica.

I felt underdressed and somewhat intimidated by all this. The leather-bound menus were somewhat more familiar, and the actual food was reassuring. A bread-bearer approached with a choice of four items, of which I preferred the buttery tandoori bread, the onion bun, the raisin-bread slices, and the hard roll, in that order. With these came a choice of whipped butter, a mild apple-ginger chutney, and a creamy saffron spread. The chef sent half of us an amuse-gueule of well-flavored salmon mousse on some dabs of chive cream; the other two had a single tamarind-glazed scallop in a tiny dish of cucumber-cream soup.

I got the expression " trans-ethnic " from the " trans ethnic crab cake " ($14), a high cylinder of a crab cake with a superb tomato chutney flavored with toasted-onion-like nigella seeds (the spice of Armenian string cheese, some Russian rye breads, and a lot of Bengali cooking). But the term might more clearly apply to the " crisped yogurt galette " ($14). This is a patty that looks like a large crab cake, but tastes like a Sicilian cheese fritter and is surrounded by five perfect cylinders of true-tasting ingredients. The consensus favorite was one of shiitake mushrooms, although simple chops of red bell pepper and golden beets were quite good. The relative loser was simple cucumber. And one was pre-post-ethnic: a chutney of puffed wheat and little red pepper like the bhel appetizer of Western India.

Lobster-and-avocado salad ($15) is less visually challenging; a lobster claw is hard to idealize. The flavors are clear, held together with a tomato aspic rendered exotic by the dry, toasted bitterness of fenugreek seeds. Using one Asian spice at a time is generally as close to Indian food as chef Thomas John chooses to fuse. Saffron-coconut soup ($10) is almost fusion soup, combining oysters and mussels with saffron, as they might in the south of France; but it also combines saffron with coconut as might happen in the north of India, and coconut with seafood as often happens in Thailand.

Between courses, we had a liqueur glass of pink melon sorbet.

Our main dishes did not have the same level of intensity, and that was okay with us. Grilled Colorado lamb rack ($37) is in a more familiar mold of vertical fusion food, a classical presentation of the sliced rare lamb tenderloin on a little peppery spinach and a little more mashed potato with a hint of cumin, with a gingery-meaty glaze underneath. Clay-oven-roasted monkfish ($29) is stacked on asparagus and a brilliant black couscous of quinoa (which starts out as a fine white grain), very nicely flavored with morel mushrooms. This is not a bad dish for someone afraid of spice, as the monkfish is a simple white fish and the strongest flavor is the woodsy mushroom.

Crisp pan-seared sea bass ($30) features one of my favorite New England fish, but not a lot of it. The platter has plenty of flavor, with green jewels of fava beans and sweet, tiny rock shrimp in a Moghul-style coconut curry that doesn’t overwhelm them. The only weak entrée we had was the vegetarian plate of steamed napa-cabbage rolls of wild mushrooms ($22). The rolls are pretty, but most of the filling is basmati rice, and the five wild mushrooms add more texture than flavor. I did like the underlying ragout of black-eyed peas and corn.

Mantra’s wine list is very expensive (not a lot under $50) but looks very good for the food, with lots of spicy Alsatian whites and decently aged Italian reds. We had a St. Francis " old vines " California zinfandel ($45) that had some useful acidity and licorice spice. Norwegian Voss water ($5) is available clear or sparkling.

There is a complimentary dessert: pairs of candied fruit, chocolates, buttery tuile cookies, and chocolate brickle. But you must order real dessert, if only to see it. A crème brûlée ($9) is three desserts: a pyramid flavored with orange passion fruit (and some of the seedy pulp as a sauce), two squares of coconut, and a half-moon of mango. The chocolate degustation ($10) is the same idea: a tall cylinder of orange-chocolate mousse, a square of (unfortunately dry) flourless chocolate cake, and a mound of irresistibly strong sorbet. Pistachio kulfi ($9) is as far from the icy cardamom kulfi of Indian restaurants as Boston is from Delhi. This is two scoops of pistachio ice cream with whole pistachios inside, each topped with a cunning lace cookie of black-and-white sesame seeds, and a very unusual sauce of candied orange peel with tapioca pearls. But the killer dessert is a peach soup ($9), featuring the most amazing lychee ice cream on a meringue cookie, and cherries and plums (and I think some mango) in the " soup. "

Table service at Mantra is good — not superior, but reassuringly human given the surroundings. Make a point of visiting the bathrooms downstairs. The stalls are elongated with many rolls of paper and one-way mirrors in the doors. In the men’s room, the urinals are filled with ice cubes, flush automatically, and are in a cube with equally automatic and unfamiliar sinks.

Mantra is not like a mantra — it isn’t simple or repetitive, nor does it clear the mind of thoughts. It is a lot of fun, especially for the jaded, and much of the food is novel and excellent by any standard. It’s certainly an experience, and a kind of enlightenment might come after a lot of meditation on the sort of person who would find it comfortable and homey.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001