At Mantra, exotically elegant fare from a confident chef

CorrespondentMarch 23, 2012 

The menu at Mantra describes Kurkuri bhindi as “julienned okra lightly breaded with Rajasthani spices and sea salt.” It’s a relatively modest offering on a list whose ambitious sweep encompasses everything from day boat scallops in mint-cilantro sauce to cardamom-, lemon- and garlic-marinated tandoori lamb chops. But Kurkuri bhindi is the first thing I look for when I open the menu.

I have a pretty good inkling it will be there. I last had the dish some five years ago at Saffron in Morrisville, where it was billed as a signature offering of executive chef Gamer Rawat. Rawat had trained in New Delhi at Bukhara, which has been rated the top Indian restaurant in the world, and gone on to cook at the acclaimed Tamarind in New York. Most recently, the chef worked briefly at Saffron of Chapel Hill (no longer affiliated with the Morrisville restaurant) before setting out on his own to open Mantra last September in downtown Raleigh’s Glenwood South district.

The bhindi – delicately crisp, lacy ribbons of okra intertwined w/threads of fried onion and tomato - is every bit as good as I remember. And it’s just the first in a parade of traditional and contemporary Indian dishes that reaffirm Rawat as one of the area’s premier talents, regardless of cuisine.

Leading the procession, along with the bhindi, are vegetarian and non-vegetarian appetizer samplers whose highlights include tandoori mushrooms, ground lamb seekh kebabs and crab shammi, India’s tandoori-grilled answer to crab cakes. And soups: tamatar basil shorba, a silky cream of tomato tinged with ginger; and dal subz shorba, a yellow lentil brew positively thrumming with chords of deep, earthy notes.

An entree course of chicken Chettinad, in a spicy southern Indian sauce punctuated with red chiles, black pepper and onion, is exemplary. So is the milder lamb Awadhi korma, whose gravy is redolent of ginger and cumin.

Raan e Sikrandi, the chef’s signature entree, raises the ante with a whole leg of lamb, roasted on the bone to fork-tenderness in the tandoor. Blanketed with a coppery, spice-fragrant sauce and accompanied by expertly sautéed baby carrots, broccoli florets, asparagus spears and wedges of roasted potato, it’s a most convivial marriage of East and West on a plate.

So is tandoori mint sea bass, whose supple flesh is set off by a suitably delicate sour cream marinade and cooked just to the point of doneness.

Mantra’s vegetarian selection is nirvana for those who don’t eat meat, and eminently worthy of consideration for those who do. Gobi musslam, cauliflower sautéed with ginger and black cardamom and artfully molded into a cylinder on the plate, is as delightful to eat as it is to look at.

You certainly don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the chef’s take on dum aloo: potatoes, peeled and hollowed out, stuffed with raisins, cashews and spiced potato skins, baked in the clay oven, and served in a pomegranate-tomato sauce.

Sweets too

For the most part, desserts live up to the high standards set by the savory fare. Don’t let the menu description of carrot halwah, “carrot cooked pudding with milk” deter you from this warm, buttery delight. At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, but equally rewarding, is the Indian ice cream, mango kulfi.

I’d pass on the mango mousse, though, which is surprisingly lacking in mango flavor.

Such disappointments are rare, and in my experience minor. The only other one I encountered is listed among the appetizers as “crab wrap” and billed as “fresh crabmeat, served southern style in a lettuce wrap.” The flavor is presumably authentic, but the presentation – in a pappadam “bowl” lined with a single lettuce leaf – is hardly a wrap. If you want to try this one, I’d recommend ordering some naan for dipping. Or plan on eating a lot of finely minced crabmeat with a fork.

Mantra’s decor is as exotically elegant as the food, though by no means stuffy. Near the entrance, a large, jewel-toned mural of a young woman holding a flower – a reproduction of a centuries-old painting discovered in the 1800s - sets a suitably adventurous tone.

A little farther back, hanging on the back wall of a semiprivate room, is a portrait of Gamer Rawat in chef’s whites. Arms crossed, with a barely perceptible smile, he’s the very picture of confidence. Deservedly so.

Mantra

116-100 N. West St., Raleigh

833-2823

www.mantraraleigh.com

Cuisine: Indian

Rating: ****

Prices: $$$

Atmosphere: exotically elegant

Noise level: moderate

Service: eager to please, variably experienced

Recommended: soups, Kurkuri bhindi, tandoori mint sea bass, leg of lamb, gobi musslam, carrot halwah

Open: Lunch and dinner daily (Saturday and Sunday lunch buffet).

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; enclosed patio

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * * Extraordinary * * * * Excellent. * * * Above average. * * Average. * Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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