Dining Out: Om Sweet Om
As soon as I saw the long, oval white plate holding a latke-like disk surrounded by little rods of multicolored salads, I knew I was seeing something as new as the celebrated urban-frontier décor at Mantra, the recently opened Indian-French restaurant in Downtown Crossing. It looked as if not only a flying saucer but a whole space colony had landed on our table.
For a year we've been waiting for something major to set down. The anticipation was in large part over what the $2.3 million spent to renovate an old bank in a dicey location (now being snappily, if opaquely, rechristened the Ladder District, for the layout of the streets) would look like. This was a very big bet being made by the second generation of a local immigrant-makes-good family, the Pablas, who run a string of successful but modest Indian restaurants. The place would look futuristic, we heard, and serve the next wave of French-meets-Indian food. Then the opening was delayed and delayed again, until it seemed that the vast Millennium Place office development nearby would be ready before Mantra was. Finally, in the height of the summer heat wave, Mantra opened its silver doors like a shimmering apparition.
If you could find the doors, that is. The hidden brushed-metal sign implies some space-age speakeasy, and the mysteriously lit, smoked glass and reflective metal paneled antechamber makes you briefly wonder if you're in a remake of The Prisoner: It's hard to find the way in. Then there are the lipstick-red low couches and footstools in the bar, which is populated by too-gorgeous young patrons who look as if they've been hired for a Wallpaper shoot; the undulating metal-mesh curtains dividing the vast dining room, which was once a windowless, marble-walled bank; the mirror behind the long bar, where tellers used to work; the low tables and the even lower banquettes, with two-sided backs that allow various loveseat configurations; and the odd half-lighting and occasional piercing disco-style spotlights. At the back of the room is the strangely beautiful woven-wood “Hookah Den,” a hulking, two-story indoor sculpture that looks like a tandoor oven fed through a computer-assisted-design program and realized in polished sandalwood matchsticks. It's disconcerting and sexy, and unlike anything else.
So is the food. It doesn't merely look as beautiful as the rust-uniformed staff, who seem to be alternates for the Wallpaper shoot out front; it draws on a design and taste vocabulary no one else around Boston and few people in the country use. Get there before the chef makes the inevitable compromises to please the diners (whose chief accessories when I ate there were the newest and slimmest wireless phones, placed right on the table, and used there, too). In fact, get there before the chef, Thomas John, vanishes altogether, like a visitor who closes the escape hatch of his flying saucer and lifts off.
John went to university in the Pabla family's native Punjab, and trained at the Oberoi, a Delhi hotel (with its own hotel school) that carries a prestige in India even greater than the Four Seasons does here. His education was the rigorous classical European kind that hardly exists outside Asia today. And, of course, he knew the food and ingredients of his childhood, and learned the many cuisines of India from working in several regions of that country. When John arrived in Boston last year to finish designing the Mantra kitchen and hire its cooks, he knew the makings of a seductive luxury familiar only to those who have visited Asian and Indian spas.
The food on John's opening menu resists categorization, but it's more European than Indian: John uses only fresh local ingredients and Indian spices imported by the Pabla family (whose culinary empire includes Shalimar India Food & Spices in Cambridge). It's all beautiful to look at—sometimes as mesmerizing as the décor. It's all seductive. And it's luxurious. I don't know another Boston menu with prices this high ($12-$20 for appetizers, $22-$37 for entrées, with most above $30). You pay for spectacle and the new; and a dinner bill is, after all, less expensive than a night at the latest Aman resort.
Preliminary highlights from the first dinner menu included an appetizer of lobster and avocado salad ($15), with one claw and the tail of a big lobster artfully arranged over a circle of glistening, lightly jelled fresh tomato gelée, fragrant with fenugreek leaves and featuring three blotches of homemade cocktail sauce visible like dark maroon pools in the topaz-colored gel. The madrilène was clear-flavored, the meat tender and fresh. The smoked trout in gram flour crêpes ($12) looked like fancified street food, but this is no samosa you've ever seen, even if the crisped diamond-shaped pillows seem familiar. The filling has big pieces of silken fish mixed with raw mango, coconut, and a hint of cumin.
The most striking entrée was a cube of gleaming white steamed halibut sandwiched with a filling of basil and garlic, covered with a few translucent slices of summer truffle (which might explain the $32 price), and set over a sheer tomato sauce flavored with coriander, asafetida, and fenugreek seeds. The sauce was patterned to look like a fuschia biomorphic pool the Eameses might have designed. The surprisingly delicate flavors didn't come together, however, or come anywhere near the startling presentation. The free-range chicken, in cylindrical bundles ($26), though, was the moistest, best chicken served in a Boston restaurant in a long time. John later told me that he doesn't brine the chicken, which makes the texture and flavor positively miraculous. But the spear of fresh foie gras as stuffing for the bundle was both extraterrestrial and extraneous, and the foie gras was unpleasantly hard and liver-y.
But John is surely a master, however far his adventurous streak takes him. His tandoor-roasted monkfish filet ($29), for example, marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic, and lime juice and served with saffron-scented quinoa, had the dry crust and perfect moist interior only a tandoor can give. It's bound to become a signature dish, even if the fresh morels above the tomato, coconut, and puréed sweet pepper sauce were more of that extraneous luxe.
The desserts look beautiful but don't excite the same sort of wonder over flavors and technique that the other courses do, although three prettily cut crème brûlées ($9) did smell and taste strongly of mango, passion fruit, and coconut. The wine list, overseen by Christian Vassilev, who worked at the Federalist, is impressive and not as expensive as his previous employer's, although expensive it is. The service? Better to look at than listen to, given the terrible noise from the reflective marble and mirror and glass, as well as the alluring but often hard to understand accents of the well-meaning waitstaff.
I'm fascinated by this food. I mean to follow its evolution as long as the chef works unhindered—and as long as someone else is paying the bill. The spicing is gentle and exotic enough to keep every dish interesting but not too challenging. This careful path between familiarity and exoticism has baffled and divided the New York patrons of Tabla, where the Indian-born, European-trained chef Floyd Cardoz set the U.S. precedent for what John and Pabla are trying to do here (and at prices that would give even trend-hunting New Yorkers pause). We have something the rest of the country needs to see and taste. Tell that to your too-hip-for-Boston friends.