A Mishmashing Success

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

Another meteor has fallen to earth, this time in the South End. Seven years after Mantra hit the Ladder District like a UFO, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by Banq: It’s equally otherworldly, with a wild and strangely beautiful, if slightly disorienting, design, in a once grand bank in a once shabby part of town; a loud, hip crowd; and oddly satisfying, if slightly disorienting, food.

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But now, rather than Indian-French—which was unknown to Boston when Mantra opened—owner Hemant Chowdhry, along with co-owner Mark Raab, has chosen Indian-French-Indonesian-Thai. Ingredients are borrowed from Indian and Indonesian cuisines, techniques from both small villages and grand French kitchens. This makes for food less sumptuous than Mantra’s was (today it’s more a nightclub than a restaurant, its culinary ambition now a memory), yet still carefully and artfully presented—and sometimes more interesting. When the inventions succeed, they’re hits of a kind that seems altogether new, not just new to Boston.

I haven’t eaten around India, but the Banq chef, Ranveer Brar, told me that in the posh but conservative New Delhi kitchens where he once worked, creations like his would be unfamiliar and unwelcome. After cooking professionally in Singapore and Thailand, he wanted to spread his wings in America; a chance meeting with Chowdhry and Raab at a world pastry competition in Phoenix gave him his ticket.

We should be glad his first American stop is Boston. It might be generally as conservative as New Delhi, but if any neighborhood will support adventurous cooking, it’s the South End—especially when the food is served in a room this stylish. You’ve probably already seen pictures of Banq’s ceiling, with its white birch waves that undulate above and around diners like something Gaudí would have put in an underground chapel. It’s at once intimate, restful, and exciting (though not great at muffling noise). The building’s origins as a bank are practically invisible inside, though the Beaux Arts façade has been polished to a newly snooty gleam.

It’s not the sort of exterior that would make you expect the dish that got my attention: the tea-smoked quail and date "cigar" ($12), which looks like a thin spring roll. Instead of vegetables, the filling is shredded quail, colored tobacco-brown with finely chopped dates and flavored with blood orange rind and fresh mint. Brar told me he smokes the meat using tea leaves, maple wood, and actual cigars; the sweetness of the dates and the light smoking make the quail taste like cigar-smoked ham—in a good way. The dish is terrific, and the almond-tamarind shot served on the side is a nicely smooth-textured, sweet-sour complement.