Friday, August 1, 2008

Mantra, Paramus review

Ever since I heard that there was an Indian place in New Jersey that was voted among the best 25 restaurants, I've been dying to go there. Finally it did happen, but not on a day that I was particularly hungry so I couldn't sample away to my heart's content. So I just wore my loose t-shirt, the one that can double as a circus tent and valiantly fought my way through two courses and dessert.
The first thing that struck me about the place was that it was in a strip mall. Don't get me wrong, some of the best Indian places I know have been in a strip mall, but this just didn't fit in with Mantra's image of an upmarket, fusion food, hotspot. The decor is nice though, not cluttered or overly kitchy. Just a few spots of bright orange color and clean white tables. Once I went inside, I noticed some explanation about bringing good cuisine to malls or something but I was whisked away to my table in minutes. Which brings me to my next point. The staff is absolutely wonderful. The place was full and not once did have to wait more than 5 mins for our server to show up. If she wasn't around, somebody else would be, asking us if we need anything else, filling up our glasses or just smiling and making us feel welcome. The service was attentive and yet non-intrusive, a total delight.
Now for the food, we started with some Sev-Puri type appetizer which was on the house. The Puri was soggy but the topping of kidney beans, tomato, onion, coriander,sev and a tangy tamarind sauce was fantastic. The ratio of tamarind sauce to the onion and sev was just perfect. I wanted to lick the sauce off my plate. The usual papad-chutney combo was replaced by a crispy fafda, generously studded with jeera and again the same tamarind sauce. I could drink that sauce by the gallon. The lobster chaat seemed like a different take on a roadside favorite and the succulent, slightly sweet lobster peices blended well with the spicy chaat masala. We also had the tandoor platter which was tandoori chicken , sheekh kabab and shrimp. I didn't taste the shrimp but take Debu's word on it that it was ok, not too great. The sheekh kabab on the other hand was rubbery. I had to literally wage a war on it. The meat was so tough and rubbery that I spent several painfully embarrassing moments trying to cut into it. The tandoori chicken was perfectly cooked though, juicy and tender with the spice reaching into every nook and cranny.

Not having much appetite for the main course we decided to share the Rogan Josh and a basket of bread. I'll be honest here, I don't know what Rogan Josh tastes like, so I didn't know if this was the real thing. The curry, regardless of whether it was authentic, was wonderful. I had asked for reaaally spicy, knowing that I never get it as spicy as I want but this one was had a wonderful heat that build on after several bites. Its the kind of heat that don't get you at the first morsel, you think 'This isn't so bad, I can eat this' and then slowly builds up till your tongue is on fire. The goat in the curry was so tender that it was almost falling apart. It melted like butter in my mouth. The bread basket was just ok. The laccha paratha was again tough and leathery and even burnt in some parts. The onion kulcha was good, buttery and soft. The saving grace was the rice. Fragrant, tender but with a little bite to it, it was unarguably the best rice I've had in a while.

The dessert has mixed feedback. I opted for Gulab Jamun and while I thought that it was simply not sweet enough, Debu liked it for the same reason. I have heard that their Banana dessert is good but I simply did not have the appetite for it.

I can't tell you about the wine list because I don't know squat about wines, but the staff was helpful and seemed knowledgeable. The prices were reasonable but the portions were not too generous either. Dinner for two with drinks comes to around $120-150. Overall the food was good enough to look over a couple of bad dishes.


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