In the auto industry, dipping into the past for design cues has become a mania. Examples form a long string of oval headlights and fenders rounded into ripe hips or etched with sharp creases lifted from bygone eras: PT Cruiser, Ford GT, Mustang GT, Thunderbird, Chevy SSR, MINI Cooper. But after the retro glow wore off with the Thunderbird and the PT Cruiser, the reflexive nostalgia became a cliché.
In the dining industry, breaking out of the past is what generally lights emotional firecrackers. Sure, comfort food was retro, creased and rounded with contemporary impressionism. But that trend is fading. More often chefs mess with tradition. They love to tinker with French discipline by pestering it with Japanese, Latin, even Southern influences, though there is still a wait for chicken-fried veal kidneys in velouté. Japanese is needled, too, all in an effort to broadcast a personal touch. Sometimes these blends can be brilliant, as the menus of Abacus, Nana, Aurora and Waka attest. But too often all you get is busyness; a perfectly good piece of prime tenderloin drop-kicked all over the globe until you can't tell whether it's beef without the aid of a forensics lab.
Like many chefs and operators, Pardeep Sharma is attempting to tweak his way out of traditional Indian cuisine, preserving its panache while casting it as wily and deft--in a contemporary sense. Many culinary trend peepers have been predicting Indian fare would be "the next big thing," with mainstream dining tickled by mint chutney and tandoori chicken. Sharma is poised to capitalize on this trend should it materialize. In 1982 he opened Kebab-N-Kurry (he sold it in 1989). Nineteen years ago, he opened India Palace. Both were respites of traditional Indian fare.
Tomato-broccoli soup $3
Coconut shrimp $4.50
Smoked salmon cakes $5.50
Fried tilapia $7.50
Rosemary-pepper beef $8.50
Chicken wrap $5.50
Lamb crepe $8.50
With Mantra, he's twisting that mold. He knows this is fraught with risk. In 1991 Sharma tried his hand at something similar with Bombay Cricket Club on Maple Avenue, though he says that operation succumbed to structural decay (sagging foundation) rather than culinary indifference.
Mantra is Indian lite. Gone are the soupy dishes like chicken masala and lamb curry. Indestructible sauces that survive hours of agony on buffet tables are also no-shows, as are the buffet-table torture chambers. "There's probably only 1 or 2 percent of the population of Dallas eating Indian food," Sharma points out. Rather than gussy up Indian food with global bells and whistles for show, Mantra is Sharma's attempt to gobble up market share. He says he wants to attract a younger crowd, the kind that flocks to perceived edginess like gulls to cruise-ship derrières. While it's hard to say if his quest is successful, we did notice a woman on the brink of senior status with hair the color of cayenne tinsel. From the sound system, we heard a rendition of the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on sitar.
Is Mantra effective, or is it simply a global trick? As it stands now, the restaurant seems more of a trick, though you can feel a touch of creativity percolating, just before it leaks through your fingers into a puddle of mediocrity. It wasn't this way with the soup, a tomato-broccoli fluid undoubtedly flavored with cardamom and a little Indian pepper. It's thick. It's smooth. It vibrates.
Entrées were leaden. Strange then that the visuals left you pleased as punch. Tandoori-marinated crispy fried tilapia was three planks deeply stained the same shade of deep red tossed off by that tinsel hairdo. They were neatly arranged with the tapered fillet tips alternating over a little smear of smooth, gluey, garlic-cumin mashed potatoes. The fish, with a thin wisp of crispness on the surface, was dry with hints of mud on the finish, reminiscent of the old catfish affliction before that endearing touch of rustic silt was bred out of it in corporate farms.
But beef is already raised on corporate farms. So where does the muddiness in the rosemary pepper-crusted beef served on a tomato asparagus ragout come from? That ragout was tremendous, with supple vegetables and plenty of tamed acids. But the beef was dry, stringy, brittle--like an old flank steak sentenced to a jerky bag that was let out before it turned total jerk.
Still, Sharma's strategy sounds sound. He says he's trying to generate mass appeal by throttling the Indian spice bag: one of the boldest, most complex and richly sensual sacks on the planet. "A lot of the time I hear from people, 'I don't like curry,'" he says. So he's knocked out this spice blend's most potent elements: cayenne pepper and turmeric, the latter of which gives the powder its yellow color. That's why Mantra's dishes are not only more subtly seasoned, they're actually different centerpieces marginally framed with Indian influences. "You can actually see the entrée," Sharma boasts.
They are vivid. Coconut shrimp, six fatties lined up neatly across the plate, flaunt plenty of white wiry fringe. The shrimp are juicy and pleasant but lack that rich, ripe punch of fine shrimp. Maybe that's why they were so heavily coated with coconut threads, to pick up where the shrimp flavor profile fell flat, fortifying it with sweet richness. A bright orange apricot-ginger dipping sauce finished the job, adding a bit of smooth sweet acid.
But perhaps the most vivid split from traditional Indian cuisine was the smoked salmon cakes. What a small, vibrant twist, one that busted up the crab cake paradigm and traditional curry logic with one well-planted velvet fist. The cakes were a little dry, but the salmon appeared as conspicuously slivered flakes, so the murky pastiness common in crab cakes, with its minced and pulverized mush fastidiously fashioned into little coasters, wasn't a distraction. The filler was there, sure. But the level didn't go much beyond the functional. The one minor flaw--that dryness--was more than offset by the chutney, an acid-flash of tomato and mango with threads of cilantro oil weaving in and out of the chutney slick.
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Sharma has jettisoned two other anchors from the traditional Indian menu: rice and naan, the white-flour flatbread baked in a tandoor oven. He substitutes this staple with pita-like breads and crepes made with rice and lentil. Infused with tomato and basil, the envelope on the chicken wrap was bright orange and well stocked with juicy slices of grilled chicken, tomato, onions and slices of cucumber, or kuchumber as the menu notes. It was set off with a mango-ginger dipping sauce.
Crepes are long, somewhat bland and folded into tubes with fillings that include vegetables, scrambled egg, onions, potato, chicken, shrimp and lamb. The crepe interior is lavishly spread with moderately or very spicy pepper paste. Lamb niligiri, with red and green bell peppers and onion, was loaded with juicy chunks of lamb. The crepe log was tethered to a pair of pepper chutneys that added some zing while coconut chutney provided a smooth, cool and clean finish.
The décor here skirts traditional Indian as well. Pink and gold have been tossed in favor of burnt orange wainscotting, squash-yellow walls and posts crusted in marine blue and green mosaic tiles. Tables have white tablecloths. Those cloths were marred with conspicuous frays--easy to fix. The menu should be, too--if Mantra keeps its trajectory fixed and fires its retro rockets every once in a while to maintain trim.
12835 Preston Road, 972-239-0600. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$