Like Alice stepping through the looking glass, walking into Mantra, a new Indian-nuanced French restaurant in downtown Boston, provides entry to a hip, stylish Wonderland. The experience begins with trying to locate the easily missed tall, narrow restaurant door. When you do finally enter, you are still not in the restaurant, but in an all-glass anteroom with not one, but two barely discernible doors. Do you go directly to the left or diagonally to the right? To tell you would ruin the fun.
This disorientation is part of the Mantra experience. According to architect Nader Tehrani of Office dA, the Boston design firm that directed this $2.3 million project, the glass-walled entryway “acts like a palate cleanser,” helping you to shed the outside world before entering the realm of Mantra. The rest of the decor is a combination of restoration and imagination. First, the designers refurbished many stately, early-20th-century elements of the space’s previous tenant, the Old Colony Trust Co. Then, they treated all of the new construction materials as if they were fabrics. Some are, such as the shimmering, iridescent ceiling-to-floor silk drapes. But even more intriguing are the silver mesh “curtains” that are suspended from the ceiling, and a curved ribbonlike mirror that hangs behind the 30-foot marble bar, an incarnation of the old bank teller counter.
A less secure chef might be wary of competing with the design spectacle, but Mantra’s executive chef Thomas John has a few understated tricks of his own. “I don’t do architectural designs with my food,” says the Indian-born John. “It’s simple on the plate, not too busy, not a lot of flavors.”
The flavors he does create, however, are inspired—a blend of what John calls “the familiar with the unfamiliar, the delicate with the robust.” One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, the crisped yogurt galette appetizer, is based roughly on an Indian street food called dahi kebab, yogurt from the Awadh region of India. Subtly seasoned and crusted with flattened rice and a little panko (coarse bread crumbs), the yogurt patty is pan-fried and presented with five little cylindrical stacks of diced accompaniments—cucumber salad, roasted red pepper, shiitake mushrooms, golden beets, and puffed rice.
The rest of the menu includes modern haute cuisine that would excite almost any passionate foodie. John’s entrées, such as coriander-dusted, free-range chicken; clay oven-roasted monkfish; grilled Colorado lamb rack; and steamed halibut and summer truffles, are modest descriptions for simply presented, highest-quality ingredients prepared by a masterful hand.
The combination of intriguing decor and remarkable cuisine has made Mantra a commune for Boston’s food and wine crowd. The bar instantly became a magnet for the trendy, evolving from hour to hour, from the after-work crowd to those out for the night. Downstairs is the Om Bar, a dark space with random seating—including benches inside a former bank vault.
Back upstairs, another quirky area gets going later in the evening: the hookah den, a hand-placed wooden construction of sleek woven slats (think postmodern Lincoln Logs) that undulates in its two-story space. The hookah den features cozy seating, and after 10:30 pm you can smoke fruit-flavored tobacco from one of Mantra’s four hookahs.
If you think you have seen it all, be sure to visit the bathrooms for another element of design surprise. The restroom stalls are adorned with rolls of toilet paper and feature one-way mirrors in the doors. Remember, even grand opera has its comic relief.