In the realm of the senses
Indian food is the new Thai. Restaurants are springing up so quickly that there seems to be a new one in every neighborhood, and young diners are becoming as familiar with lamb vindaloo as they might have been with pad Thai a few years ago. But widespread popularity doesn't always go hand-in-hand with good or authentic food. As is true in seeking out Thai places, it pays to be discriminating. You want the food to open a window into a culture, rather than be a pale imitation of what the management thinks Americans want to eat.
Tantric Bar & Grill, which opened in late July, is in an unexpected spot for an Indian restaurant: squeezed between two chains, Fuddruckers and Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, in the Theater District. Walking in can be a bit of a surprise, too -- it's not at all like what you might imagine when the term ''ethnic restaurant" comes to mind. The bar, stretching along one side of the room, and backed with brightly lighted shelves holding liquor bottles, captures the room's focus. A coppery filigreed chandelier seems to reach down like an exotic flower from the center of the room, and the banquettes are covered with boldly colored fabrics.
For a minute, I feel as though I've stumbled into an Indian version of P. F. Chang's, ethnic only in theme. But then the fragrance of spices wafts across the room as a waitress carries dishes to a table. Reassured, I enjoy a glass of white wine while waiting for other members of my party. In a later phone conversation, Mohinder Ahluwalia, one of the owners, explains that the restaurant is the project of two couples who wanted to eat Indian food in a place they could also socialize in. So he and his wife, Poonam Ahluwalia, and Mary and Shubhro Sen, who also own Jaipur Cafe in Norwood, set out to create a restaurant with an upscale ambience and a bar scene.
The look may be the flipside of sometimes dark and cramped Indian restaurants, dominated by sitar music and television screens playing silent tape loops of Bollywood films. But Tantric doesn't fool around with the cuisine; there's no fusion at play, and no dumbing down of the spices or chilis. And unlike the predominant Northern Indian cuisine found in the Boston area, Tantric's chef, Amal Jana, plays the field of this vast country, mixing Punjab dishes from the north with southern dishes like spicy Kerala lamb in a coconut curry. Sprinkled in are innovations such as a sprouted moong bean salad with chickpeas and tomatoes, which, Ahluwalia says, is part of his wife's interest in healthy dishes. The wine list, moderately priced and concentrating on American, Australian, and New Zealand vintages, with a few Italians thrown in, is more extensive than in many Indian restaurants; we enjoy an Erath pinot gris from Oregon with one meal, the fruit in the wine nicely matching the spice-laden food. Continued...