Located in downtown Palo Alto, Mantra offers natural lighting that frames the Indian-inspired, modern wall art on gold and mint green walls. We walked past an elegant bar and lounge to a cozy table located behind a calming installation of water flowing over beautifully colored slate.
Our server appeared immediately, and was friendly and knowledgeable. Within minutes, we were offered a tasty sampler cocktail of tequila, watermelon and cilantro—almost like an offering of what was to come. He offered guidance and a short list of his favorite items, and then left us to peruse the menu on our own.
Mantra was started by Ashwani Dhawan, a high-tech entrepreneur and Sachin Chopra, an accomplished chef. They built a dining experience combining the best of California cuisine with the robust flavors of India. Complementing the creative menu is an extensive wine list separated by “Above/Below $40,” with clear descriptions of the fruits and suggestions for meals to pair them with. According to manager Ben Holder, Mantra buys produce “as local as we can get it” by shopping at farmers’ markets and making conscious choices in every ingredient the eatery uses.
My partner Chris is a “strategic orderer,” choosing the menu item that will complement what I’m having. While I scanned for vegetarian and fish dishes, he went straight for the meat and Indian-spiced ones. What we found was a consistency of flavor and approach among the variety of offerings.
We started with an almond Paneer kebob salad: patties of cheese curd, goat cheese and thyme, served over greens with a mint vinaigrette dressing. Fried cheese can feel heavy just by thinking of it, but these patties were light and fluffy. We also had the Tuna Torchon: seared cubes of tuna with a coriander glaze accompanied by micro greens in a citrus dressing. It was light, complex and outstanding.
Entrees consisted of fresh halibut in cilantro pesto and served with citrus spinach and “garam” chocolate sauce. The blend of the pesto and chocolate over the halibut was heavenly. We ordered two types of naan: one with rosemary and garlic and the other, pesto. Both were warm and pungent and perfectly baked. Mantra’s side dish of curried vegetables was the most traditional Indian item we tried, and it made me love lentil for the first time.
Forsweets, the chocolate mousse tower with warm caramel sauce was denser than I expected, but it brought out a stronger chocolate taste, which was delightful. Other options included a cheese plate, and a passion fruit soup with a milk chocolate “Bombe” honey and pistachio nougat.
During the meal, Chris and I took a moment to silently chant while we enjoyed the food, which was a profound experience. Spices reintroduced themselves, and we both slowed down to enjoy and understand the intention behind the blend of the cuisines. While this is a special practice to take when preparing a meal, chanting into our food at the namesake restaurant, with its elegance and authenticity, took on new meaning.
In addition to a full lunch and dinner menu, Mantra offers two happy hours: one post-workday, and a second beginning 45 minutes before they close the kitchen in the evening. Mantra also has a spacious private room that can seat up to 30 people, and will cater off-site for special occasions.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “A yogi should always regard food as medicine to purify and fuel the body and mind for maintenance of life and progress in sadhana (spiritual path).” We left Mantra feeling that way: sustained, calm and healed. That’s a medicine I could get used to.