With the opening of Mantra Indian Kitchen & Tap Room on Bond and Franklin, downtown Bend now boasts two Indian restaurants. Mantra is the brick and mortar embodiment of the Curry Shack food cart owned by Runi Srikantaiah.
Mantra has the bones of a restaurant that has had multiple lives. In fact, not much has changed in the interior since the previous restaurant, Fire in Bend, remodeled it. Mantra has given the space some Indian flair with a few Bollywood movie posters, red drapes backlit with fairy lights, and a big screen TV playing dramatic Indian music videos.
It isn't obvious when you walk in, but service at Mantra is casual: place your order at the counter and then pick your seat. The menu is pretty simple compared to lots of Indian restaurants, it's divided into Street Food tiffin (small bites), rice & curry bowls, each with five options; and then thali—larger meals based on the same curry bowls. Even with this tight, easy to choose from menu, there are plenty of vegan and gluten-free options.
I started my dinner with samosas, the crispy triangular pastry filled with spiced potatoes and peas served with tangy tamarind and green chutneys. The samosas were satisfyingly crunchy and the sweet chutneys brightened the savory filling. The green chutney, meanwhile, was primarily sweet and I was expecting more acidity and an explosion of fresh herbs.
- Lisa Sipe
- Crispy samosas
After the appetizer I was already full; this is a cuisine of comfort food that sticks to your ribs.
I soldiered on and ordered a thali (pronounced ta-lee) meal with butter chicken. Thali is a full meal on one plate or tray, with the various dishes coming in small bowls called katori. If you order the thali you better be hungry because here is what was on my neatly organized metal tray: seasoned rice, naan (flatbread), pappadam (rice cracker), butter chicken, saag (spinach curry with potatoes), chole (chickpea curry), cucumber-yogurt raita, green chutney and mango pickle.
Even if you are overwhelmed by all of those options on one plate, stick with me. It's really a fun way to try lots of different flavor combinations. I started with the butter chicken, a mildly spicy curry with butter and cream, and scooped it up with a piece of the naan. The butter chicken had a bit of spice so on my next bite I tempered it by adding a little of the cucumber-yogurt raita. That was delicious but I had to see what it was like if I added the mango pickle. This to me was perfection. The combination hit what I love about Indian food, the sublime mix of tart, salty, hot and sweet. If you've never had mango pickle, it's not like an American cucumber pickle; it's raw mango pickled in oil with spices including mustard seeds, garlic and chilis. This flavor isn't for the faint of heart; it was pungent enough to make my eye twitch, but I couldn't stop eating it.
- Lisa Sipe
- Exotic Seasonings
The supporting cast in my thali, the saag and chole, were good but not the stars of the show. The saag—spinach curry with potatoes—didn't have any sign of spinach. The only green part of the curry was the cilantro leaf on top. I have a feeling they ran out of the saag and substituted a different curry with potatoes and carrots. Even with this substitution I was satisfied because there was just so much food to enjoy.
Mantra has a bar with 13 local taps featuring mostly beer with a few cider and kombucha options. I wanted so badly to have the room to try their mango lassi, so I ordered one to go. The lassi, an Indian smoothie with yogurt, mango and cardamom, tasted like a drinkable ocean roll with mangos. It was absolutely delicious and I might be addicted.
Mantra is a fresh, flavorful addition to the Bend food scene and an easy place to grab some exotic comfort food. And don't be afraid to try those mango pickles; it's worth the eye twitch.
Mantra Indian Kitchen & Tap Room
744 NW Bond St., Ste A, Bend