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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Mantra

It’s All in the Details

By Winnie Yang

staff writer

Mantra

52 Temple Pl., Boston

(617) 542-8111

There’s an air of exclusivity to Mantra, the new French-Indian restaurant in Downtown Crossing. And not just because of the prices (exorbitant as they are) -- we had difficulty even finding the entrance on that darkened side street between Washington and Tremont. And once we located the tall glass door, marked -- just barely -- by a small, unlit brushed metal sign and tucked between two modest potted trees, I still wasn’t able find the way in, opening a service door in the anteroom that led to concrete floors and a mop. Luckily, a bemused hostess came to our rescue and graciously seated us, though we’d arrived nearly an hour before our reservation time.

Mantra’s interior is arresting: the low red couches that circle the dimly lit bar give way to a vast expanse of dining room. The high ceilings and granite walls belie the building’s former life as a bank, while metal mesh curtains provide for more intimate dining at the smaller tables near the rear. While Mantra seats well over 200, the tables are spaced far enough apart that noise isn’t a problem. The recessed lighting and low-profile furniture give the interior a clean, futuristic look, and the potted trees dotting the walls are a charming touch.

The centerpiece of the room is a large, organic sculpture. On closer examination, we discovered that this woven wood structure is actually a room lined with the same red couches from the bar. Our server explained that this is the “hookah den,” where diners can share an after-dinner smoke of flavored tobaccos from the restaurant’s selection of water pipes. Despite the dramatic elements of the dining room, it’s a very comfortable space. It’s like dining in someone’s loft, albeit an exceptionally well-decorated one.

A server came to each table, offering a selection of freshly baked rolls still warm from the oven, the crackly brown crusts breaking easily in the hand. The tomato basil was superior to both the multigrain and the sourdough, with the added complexity of its flavorings. This bread also best complimented the apple ginger chutney -- which bore a remarkable similarity to apple butter -- and the sweet creamy butter that came alongside.

The wine list is quite extensive, but prohibitively expensive. Bottles range from a handful at $35 to a Fonseca Vintage ’66 that goes for $750. Yes, you read correctly.

After deciding to forego wine, we chose to start with the tuna tartare and salmon raita ($17) and the crisped yogurt galette ($15). The grapefruit-marinated tuna was topped with a much needed dollop of sevruga caviar, as it was otherwise bland (though I assert that this is more the fault of tuna than the kitchen’s doing). The salmon, however, was pure pleasure on the tongue, transformed to an extraordinarily smooth and creamy texture by the tangy yogurt marinade. The yogurt galette was reminiscent of a light goat cheese, slightly thickened as it was through cooking and covered with a toasty, nutty, crunchy coating. Little thimble-sized cylinders of marinated vegetable salads lined the plate and tended to be too understated (the lime juice-marinated cucumber salad, for example). The sweeter golden beet and fig juice-marinated toasted rice were cool counterpoints to the warmed yogurt.

For the main course, we ordered the seared veal tenderloin ($38) and the roasted halibut ($34). The halibut was well executed, cooked with shallots and covered in a curry-like sauce of ground cumin and chili. I detected a trace of ginger as well. Undoubtedly the most Indian dish we were served, the French influence was still present in the pool of mustard sauce and the artichokes sautÉed with sour cream and scallion beneath the fish. The veal tenderloin, on the other hand, was all French, accompanied by roasted beet, carrot and potato, and a bundle of tender haricots verts. The veal itself was exceptional -- the way beef ought to be: darkly crisped exterior, the inside so tender and buttery that it melts in the mouth. The meat tasted almost fruity, it was so delicate -- perhaps a result of the wonderfully aromatic truffle-infused sauce.

Desserts at Mantra, while excellent, do not inspire the same raptures as the preceding courses. The presentation, as in all the dishes, is gorgeous, every morsel arranged perfectly on the wide, flat, unembellished plates -- eye candy of the best sort (since it’s actually edible). We chose the chocolate degustation ($15) and the tropical crÈme brÛlÉe ($14).

The first, a triumvirate of a sorbet, a chocolate orange crÈme in a miniature tart shell, and a chocolate mousse stuffed into a flourless paper-thin cylinder, was intensely flavored, the orange crÈme the best of the three. The crÈme brÛlÉe also arrived in a trio: a mango-flavored pyramid atop slices of fresh mango, delicate squares of coconut-flavored crÈme, and a mound infused with passion fruit juice and surrounded by a little pool of the fruit’s seeds and pulp.

While this meal might rank the best in recent memory, it is unfortunately overshadowed by the novelty of Mantra’s restrooms. Or, more specifically, the men’s restroom.

My dining companion described his confusion when, upon entering the men’s room, he encountered a large, chest-height metal cube resting on the floor with a pipe that extends from the top and disappears into the ceiling. There are recesses on two adjoining sides of the cube; one side opens into two large metal basins and spigots and a handle hang above each basin, while the other contains a long tray of ice. Yes, ice. Water streams down inside the recess when one moves away from the ice. Our server confirmed that this is indeed the urinal. She couldn’t explain the reasoning behind it and offered that “maybe it’s refreshing.” Her surprise that we’d figured it out ourselves, since “no one ever seems to figure it out,” was slightly disconcerting. In fact, I have to digress here to relate my friend’s experience on his return trip to the men’s room.

My friend -- for ease of storytelling, I’ll just call him Bob -- enters the restroom at the same time as another restaurant patron, and both approach different sides of the cube. Bob does his business at the tray of ice, while the other guy stands at the sinks for a long time. Guy steps away and notices the ice; looks between ice and sinks in momentary confusion. Bob asks, “What did you just do?” Guy looks down and mumbles, “Oh, shit. I just pissed in the sink.” By this time, three other men have entered, also scratching their heads in confusion at what looks like an ice machine in the men’s room. The guy shrugs and says, “Oh well, guess I’ll just wash my hands in the other sink.” Bob replies, “You could do that -- if it weren’t broken.” All in the restroom cringe inwardly. One wonders how often this sort of thing occurs and why management doesn’t clarify matters. One also hopes that visitors to the restroom don’t consider the ice consumptive refreshment.

Restrooms aside, Mantra proves a worthy newcomer to upscale Boston dining. This establishment succeeds because of its simple approach to dining -- while seemingly otherworldly at times, the dishes, like the surroundings, are uncluttered, wrought with a deft hand and an attention to detail. If the food seems more Gallic than Goan, it is because the restaurant strays slightly from its fusion aspirations.

But who really cares when it tastes this good? The flavors, wherever they’re from, are incredibly pure. And while the portions are ample, the food itself is light. One leaves feeling only satisfied. It’s the attention to detail however -- whether in the ice in the restrooms or the careful, attentive service of the well-trained waitstaff -- that truly elevates dining at Mantra to a remarkable experience. Possibly even worth the $134.