Refined and relaxed
New menu, chef and casual ambiance bring freshness to Palo Alto's Mantra
The Indian subcontinent has always met California cuisine at Mantra, the five-year-old restaurant on Emerson Street in Palo Alto. The original tilt had been towards India. Recently, the axis has shifted more towards California with accents and overtones of India.
A small plate/large plate menu debuted in March along with new executive chef Shachi Mehra, an experienced professional with an accomplished resume. There are two dozen tapas-styled small-plate offerings and more than a dozen entrees that can be ordered as full or half orders. Every dish I tried was appealing: some more exciting than others, but there was nothing I can't recommend.
Mantra is the brainchild of Ashwani Dhawan, who also owns SliderBarCafe on University Avenue. The chef and menu aren't the only changes at his Mantra. Gone is the partition that separated the dining room and lounge; gone are the tablecloths and formality of ambiance. It's decidedly more casual now, but still aesthetically appealing, open and spacious, with bare wood-topped tables, and more affordable and approachable.
The small-plates part of the menu offers an array of options. Steamed mussels masala ($8.95) was a near-overflowing bowl of black bivalves blanketed in a thick sauce of tamarind, fennel and coconut. The masala, a blend of spices, gave the dish a delicious piquancy.
I thought the crispy greens ($4.95) terrific. Arugula and spinach leaves had been lightly battered, deep-fried and piled high on a small platter. The batter was a tad thicker than a tempura batter and suited the leaves perfectly. The dish came with a tasty tamarind chutney.
The Chat Chat fried popovers ($4.95) were golf ball-sized and stuffed with potato and chickpeas and topped with tamarind and mint chutneys. Dhawan told me this is considered street food in India.
The day boat scallops ($11.95) had been perfectly seared and retained their meaty juiciness. The scallops were set on a tangy sauce of pink peppercorns, fennel, cauliflower puree and caviar. The mollusks nearly melted on the tongue.
The lamb lollipops ($9.95) were fun to eat and the heartiest of the small-plate offerings. Ground lamb was rolled into balls and rubbed with green chilies. The sticks of the lollipops were cinnamon sticks. Tamarind-and-mushroom chutney accompanied.
Large plates are offered in two sizes, full or as half orders. The half orders are larger than small plates, which is somewhat confusing. With full orders there is plenty to share; half orders you might want to keep for yourself.
The methi pork chops ($11.95 half, $19.95 full) were marinated Porterhouse (center-cut) chops. A good portion of dill potatoes accompanied. Garlic and fenugreek were used in the marinade. The chops were juicy, fork-tender and spicy but not pungent enough to detract from the tasty meat. Fenugreek is a savory, slightly bitter herb that is available as leaves, seeds or as a spice. Methi refers to seeds.
Mixed seafood curry (($9.95/$15.95) was aromatic, zesty, poached seafood: mostly salmon, scallops and shrimp, in a light coconut curry that was snappy enough to be remembered.
Paneer ravioli (one size-$15.95) was a giant pastry puff stuffed with paneer cheese, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach and cumin. Paneer is a fresh-made, non-melting curd cheese made without rennet, the coagulating agent. The serving was generous and the flavors intriguing. Cumin added an unexpected punch.
Mantra has relaxed its beverage menus as well. Cocktails and beer are available by the carafe and pitcher. The wine menu retains its strength with more than two-dozen selections available by the glass. Full bottles are dominated by California and French selections. Since my last review in 2006, the composition of the list has been revised in favor of more affordable, less prestigious, yet very drinkable labels.
For dessert, the house-made kulfi ($2.49) was a generous silky scoop of Indian ice cream flavored with cardamom over marinated cherries and blackberries.
The trio of custards ($5.95) included a tea-infused chocolate brulee that was surprisingly astringent, a lush lick-the-spoon pot de creme, and a lip-smacking coconut caramel. A grand conclusion to a flavor-packed meal.
The lunch buffet ($10.95) offers a myriad of curries, meats, fish, desserts, and vegetarian selections, Tuesday through Friday.
One interpretation of the word "mantra" means transformation or change. That's what has happened at Mantra, the restaurant. Ashwani Dhawan reimagined and breathed a new and exciting life into his fusion eatery. It's casual, reasonably priced fare with an executive chef who knows how to deliver.
632 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch: Tue.-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Wed. 5-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.