Mantra snapped, crackled, and popped when it opened in 2001, a dining and nightclub phenom so fresh and so glitzy that it sailed right through the doldrums after 9/11 when many other well-established restaurants floundered. But after a few years, its nightlife rep threatened to drown out the excellent cuisine of chef Thomas John. It stopped being a force on the dining scene. And in 2004, John left to become the executive chef at Au Bon Pain.
I heard from more than one colleague that on any given night, the dining room was completely empty. Only the club kids talked about it.
But the comeback is a cherished idea in America. In January, owners Amrik Pabla and Hemant Chowdhry announced they had hired a new chef from India, Anupam Joglekar, formerly of InterContinental's The Grand New Delhi hotel. As Chowdhry said then, they were "bringing the focus back to the restaurant."
Curious, I return. The first impression isn't encouraging. Mantra was a bank building in its earlier life, and its high ceilings, marble, and dark details must have looked impressively solemn to its customers. And when the restaurant opened, full every night, those solid details contrasted nicely with the hookah den, the lush fabric curtains, and the modern furniture. Now the dining room just looks somber and the fabrics shabby. There's a particularly drab gray drop cloth covering sound equipment in the center of the room. The dining room is nearly empty midweek. The bartender disappears for long minutes before returning to take our drink orders as we wait for companions. And on one visit, the back of a chair is so shaky that we have to ask for a replacement to save one of us from tumbling to the floor.
Chowdhry had said in January that a renovation of the color schemes, the management, and wine list was underway, but it's hard to tell on these visits. The wine list is quite good, though pricey, starting at about $40 and rising steeply in price. Like the woman at the bar, the servers are inconsistent, helpful one minute, disinterested the next. One evening, the waiter steps up his pace after a bottle of wine is ordered, but the pauses between courses is almost painful.
Which is too bad because the food is very good. Joglekar, like John, has an international hotel background and fuses French technique with Indian spicing. That doesn't seem so surprising now as it did in Boston early in the 21st century. Then we were just getting bored with soy sauce and Asian fusion, so the sudden, heady scents of cardamom and curry seemed revelatory. Now, well, it's a lot of chai spice later.
Joglekar's cooking style is quite masterful. The first taste -- an amuse or palate teaser from the chef -- is a tiny dish of halibut ceviche with shaved fresh coconut and a punch of spice. It's lovely, fresh, and brings me to attention. An appetizer of both tuna tartar and salmon gravlax brings together two stalwarts and yet makes them seem new. Each fish glistens with freshness, and slices of blood orange and a tangy vinaigrette complement them. With the dish are tasty Indian crackers; after those and the buttered naan that comes to the table before any other food, I start to wish for a full array of Indian breads.
Crab salad is surrounded by bits of green apple gelee and topped with some baked brie. After a bite, all that I want to do is fend off anyone coming near the salad and forget the trendy accompaniments. A long rectangular plate holds three different foie gras preparations -- a torchon of pink, silken foie with mustardy fruits; a slice of pate with black truffles; and a heady morsel of seared foie gras with a tiny cheese dumpling and sour cherries. Despite the fact that the appetizer almost confuses with too much presentation, the flavors and the quality of foie make for an amusing and appealing dish.
Entrees range from meats with barely a tinge of Indian spicing to other proteins heavily seasoned. The menu descriptions don't really convey those degrees. Veal tenderloin is a handsome hunk of meat, beautifully cooked and served with garlicky spinach and well-crisped rounds of potatoes. It's fine, but predictable until one gets to the delicious glazed onions permeated with Madras curry. Each bite of filet mignon with black lentils causes one's mouth to tingle with cardamom. Yet the spiced halibut could use another hit of them, though the nigella seeds and grilled white asparagus are good.
That puts into sharp relief steamed prawns, their delicate flavoring of cardamom accenting the sweet flesh, and the slight bite of cumin in the raisin-studded pilaf and a stream of creamy mustard balancing out the dish. Again, the most complex presentation, called a deconstructed tasting of game hens, is the best. Here there are separate sauces to mix and match with quail, duck confit, and partridge: a roasted sesame sauce that has a hoisin-like consistency, a sweet chili sauce, and another an aoili-like emulsion. The strong flavor of partridge pairs well with the dark, slightly sweet sauce. The quail, stuffed with lemon rice, matches the aoili, and slices of duck confit get a boost from tamarind. And to cut through the richness of the meat, there's broccoli raab. In a phone interview, Joglekar says he tries always to have an element like the raab or tiny chunks of cucumber on the tuna tartar and salmon gravlax to cleanse the palate.
Desserts are many faceted and pretty. A chocolate tasting has many little pieces, but is mundane. Fallen espresso chocolate souffle, essentially flourless chocolate cake, is much better and the caramelized banana with it, the best of all. Cardamom cashew nut bread, really a spice cake, has a nifty caramel sauce. And the coconut creme brulee, while hardly a new idea, is well made.
There's not the clarity in the cuisine that could make Thomas John's food so inspiring, nor quite the number of contrasts in texture or risks taken. But when Joglekar goes out on a limb -- as in the intricate display of game hens -- his food is delightful. Perhaps he needs that challenge of keeping all those balls in the air to really shine.