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Silent Mantra Of Palo Alto’s Fusion Cuisine

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:23 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Oct 23, 2010, 1:24 AM ]

Being at the center of California’s intellectual hub, having such a diverse clientele and being the new kid on the block, Mantra Restaurant’s managing partner, Ashwani Dhawan, admits he’s up against a challenge. After launching his restaurant last year and hiring a young fusion executive chef with an impressive potpourri of experience, Mantra hopes to make its mark in the culinary savvy Bay area. Diana Rohini LaVignetalks to the chef and co-owner about their aggressive ambitions and initial in uence in creating this chic culinary hotspot.

After 30-plus years in the engineering field, Ashwani Dhawan wanted a new challenge and change in his life. Although he has a love of technology, he has another love for food. It was, therefore, natural for him to gravitate towards launching an Indian restaurant as he is both creative and has always enjoyed fi ne cuisine.
“I didn’t want another traditional Indian restaurant. I wanted much more,” states Dhawan. “I wanted to bring Indian food and culture into a modern state.”

After trying to train a well-known chef from a fi ve-star hotel chain about the intricacies of Indian cooking and spices without success, Dhawan knew he needed an extraordinary executive chef that had the
knack of combining local foods with Indian spices in order to make Mantra successful.

“You need someone to tie the two cuisines together. You don’t want to overpower the food with too many spices. It’s a skill,”explains Dhawan. After interviewing a signifi cant number of candidates, Dhawan was sold on the 31-year old Sachin Chopra, who had training both in the United States and India. Early on, Chopra might never have guessed he would end up in California as an executive chef. A non-successful attempt at joining the medical fi eld led him towards a position in hotel management back in India. This is where he fi rst realized that being
an executive chef might be exactly the right career move for him. He started to focus on a future in the culinary arts.

“I always wanted to do more with international cuisine,” notes Chopra, who was born and raised in New Delhi. Starting his training at one of India’s top hospitality schools, the Hotel Management and Catering Institute, he continued his training in the U.S. at the Culinary Institute
of America. Luck struck and he landed a position working directly under top chef Daniel Bouloud at the award-winning Restaurant
Daniel in New York City. He admits the work was brutally diffi cult with a typical 85-hour work week and only $250 per week as a stipend, but he says it was the best training he could ask for. Soon after his training with Bouloud, Chopra went on to launch a few of his own restaurants. On a shoe-string budget, he launched “Tapestry” just two weeks prior to the 9/11 attacks in the ground zero neighborhood.
Bad timing and lack of an established budget proved to be too much for
Chopra to make his restaurant endeavors survive. The bills continued to arrive despite the 9/11 disaster and so he packed his bags to find a more secure future in California.

Success proved far easier on the West Coast as he worked and helped to bring the restaurant Amber to acclaim and local fame.

“I want to bring the level of success that Amber had to Mantra,” Chopra adds. Designed to Enjoy Mantra was created with an effort to balance local ingredients with Indian spices and cooking techniques. Dhawan also wanted to create a beautiful space that made dining a pleasurable and exotic experience. With the help of architect and designer Heather Koster, he set out to make the former Bijou Theatre historical space a chic eatery.

With a modern industrial structure and exposed ceilings, Dhawan decided to go with a bold use of color. The dining room,painted in a deep, rich earthen tone, is accented by the colorful artwork of M.F. Hussain, worth over $1 million. Mantra also offers a dramatic bar area
called the Daru Lounge with black granite surfaces, cascading rose petal lights, and cherry wood elements. The private dining area features the artwork of S.H. Raza and the entire restaurant is adorned with ceiling to floor draperies brought from India. And interior waterfall, low-lighting and single golden candles on each table make it an intimate space.

During the daytime, the restaurant reaps the rewards of the skylight and mammoth glass windows by taking in the natural lighting of the sun. Summertime brings the food outdoors to their patio, too. Although they keep it intimate, the space holds 100 people in the main dining rooms, 40 in the Daru Lounge, and 40 more in the private dining

Mixing Cuisines

Changing the menu every two to three months, Mantra strives for new culinary heights each time.

“Sachin has come out with a lot of off-the-beaten path recipes. He tries to balance each dish carefully,” Dhawan says proudly of his executive chef.

Chopra isn’t afraid to mix any type of fresh ingredient with his Indian touch, including sea bass, steak, red snapper and ravioli. With a selection of vegetarian dishes like Paneer Cuboid with raisin- and mushroom-stuffed paneer, to Stuffed Baby Aubergine, which is eggplant fi lled with ricotta, goat cheese and served with basil tomato sauce, vegetarians needn’t worry about getting something uniquely flavorful at Mantra. Additional vegetarian dishes include Almond Paneer Kebab Salad, Golden Cumin Cauliflower Soup, Subz Malabari and Paneer Ravioli. Those who prefer meat can savor the succulent taste of Mantra’s signature dish, Kashmiri Sea Bass, which is sea bass marinated with roasted Kashmiri cayenne pepper with dill served over a nest of leeks, pickled onions and seasonal vegetables. Another favorite with clients is the Red Snapper with Okra made of crusted snapper fi llets served with fresh okra pachdi asefetida and curry leaf-accented yogurt sauce. Additional meat entrees include Konkani Mussels, Shrimp Vinhaleaux, Chicken Moilee, Anari Steak, Nawabi Murgh and Tandoori Mixed Grill. Fresh tandoori baked Naan breads in fl avors like Lamb or Rosemary Pesto are the perfect accompaniment to add to the exotic entrees. Diners should not forget to taste one of Mantra’s Indian side dishes, like Basil Coconut Aloo, Chicken Tikka or Indian Stir Fry. Be forewarned that the quantity is sufficient and you will not be hungry; however, save space for dessert.

Many choose a port or wine to complement one of the fi ne desserts offered at Mantra. Rosemary Saffron Crème Brulee, Hazelnut Mouse with Thyme-infused Lemon Curd or the Passion Fruit Soup with a Cointreau Chocolate Bombe, hazelnuts and fresh berries are just a few of the wide selection of sweets available. Mantra also has a full bar with a premium liquor selection and award-winning wine
menu. Many drinks encompass seasonal and fresh local ingredients for extra taste bud excitement.

Prices for lunch range from $8 to $16, dinner appetizers from $8 to $14, and dinner entrees from $16 to $26 each, and catering
is available. With fi rst-rate cuisine, an exotic yet intimate
setting, being centrally located and
providing friendly service, Mantra will have
you repeating their name over and over
again in no time.

632 Emerson Street
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone: 650.322.3500