Mantra (31 Elm, at Yonge, 416-979-9696) Complete meals for $60 per person (à la carte lunch $35, lunch buffet $25), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $22/$12. Open for $10.95 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and for dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, 18 steps to second-floor buffet and washrooms. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Like the upmarket eateries along King West between Simcoe and Spadina, Elm Street's restaurant row caters primarily to an out-of-town crowd. With a few exceptions - Dhaba, Oro - locals stay away from both avenues in droves. But Mantra, a newly launched spot across from the Elmwood Spa, hopes to rectify that situation.
Specializing in "contemporary French Indian cuisine," as website www.mantratoronto.com contends, the swanky two-storey brownstone aims to attract Toronto foodies as well as tourists. Owners Hemant Bhagwani and Sumeet Lanba, formerly of Brampton hakka joint Chor Bazaar and Bayview's somewhat more luxe Kamasutra, have "specially flown (in) from India"(as their site explains) chef Kirti Singh. They liken his kitchen skills to "notes from late Yehudi Menuhin's violin."
After three visits, if I'm to believe Mantra's musical analogy, the dead fiddler must be missing a few strings.
Once home to Aussie pub Foster's, the first-floor dining room couldn't be more pleasant - chocolate brown walls and banquettes, billowing white curtains and those same snazzy chandeliers they have at Amuse-Bouche - although the space does have an anonymous hotel feel. Some fresh-cut flowers would help.
We'd been looking forward to site-hyped starters like roasted beet salad with lavender, almonds, watercress and Brie ($7) and seared foie gras with pomegranate vinaigrette and sour apple chutney ($11), but a quick scan of tonight's card reveals that the two have jumped ship.
Instead, we opt for Goan spiced mussels steamed in tomato sauce with chick peas ($9), but are soon informed by our returning gracious server that the shellfish have turned.
That leaves samosas ($5), a plump pair of South Asian fritters stuffed with regulation diced potato, peas and corn niblets, not unlike those served at any Indo resto except that they're elegantly plated with a thimbleful of sweet tomato chutney laced with black kalonji seeds and a tiny tangle of designer frissee.
Sided with another chutney (tamarind this time and available separately for two bucks after originally being pegged at an exorbitant $3.75), Pakora Batter Brie ($7) might better be billed as deep-fried cheese, its outer coating thin and not particularly pakora-esque.
Taking its name from "chee-chee," Hindi slang for someone from the Subcontinent who speaks with an affected anglo accent, chef Singh's Chhi Chhi Chhi Calamari ($9) finally gets East-West fusion right - spicy paprika-spiked squid sections over a tantalizing salad of semi-ripe mango studded with raw garlic cloves. We've also ordered a large square bowl of carrot pistachio raita ($3.75) for the table. Big enough for a party of six, it tastes principally of yogurt, and after we've dunked our quarters of first-rate tandoor-fired roasted garlic naan ($3) into it, we're at a loss for what to do with it next. Dessert?
Maybe it's meant to go with the mains? Possibly, but it does nothing for my duck breast ($19.50), thick slices of bird that are so overcooked, dogs could use them as chew toys. And despite its tasty curried sauce of caramelized apple, a side of spuds - confit of sweet potato, apparently - recalls over-processed mash that's been dried out in an oven and garnished with store-bought root veggie chips.
However, this does not prepare us for the disaster that is lobster in yellow curry sauce ($22.95). A waste of good tail, it rides a bed of short falooda noodles - think Lipton's Noodle Soup - tossed with Chinese chives and trout caviar that only exacerbates the dish's fishiness. After three cursory bites, we discreetly place our napkin over the lot. Management notices and removes it from the bill.
Earlier in the week, we do lunch in Mantra's more casual upstairs. While everyone else - both of them - goes for the weekday $10.95 buffet, a steam table of standard north Indian grub like aloo gobi, palak paneer and limp naan, we soldier on through the à la carte Indo-French fusion lineup. We begin with Mantra Shrimp Pakora ($9), a fair-sized pair of tail-on critters inexplicably wrapped in deep-fried rice vermicelli tied with a ribbon of seaweed. Why?
Equally puzzling, Goan fish and chips ($12) turns out to be three small, bright red, deep-fried unidentified fillets virtually devoid of spice, coupled with greasy matchstick fries. Served on a sesame seed bun spread with pink mayo, the beefy house burger ($11.25) gets haplessly tag-teamed with sodden gaufrettes. Both come minimally plated with a mix of fancy greens dressed with lemony vinaigrette.
On their website, Bhagwani and Lanba maintain that fusion cuisine "more often than not has a negative connotation, the results frequently muddled or contrived."
Before they open a second similarly named restaurant in Burlington mid-September, perhaps the two should take these wise words for their own personal mantra.