About seven months ago, a new Indian restaurant opened in downtown Davenport - Mantra Indian Cuisine. It had been on our radar for quite some time. One Friday evening with nothing to do, Cindy said, "Hey, we ought to go try the food at that Indian restaurant downtown." That sounded good to me and we struck out for downtown Davenport.
Jaspreet Arora owned and operated an Indian restaurant over in Moline - Great Indian - from 2004 to 2008. He and his father, Raj, opened Mantra in August of 2012 in the spot (see map) that had been the old Italian Village restaurant when I first moved here years ago, then it was an Indian restaurant - the India House - for a number of years. A few years ago, the group that owns the Azteca restaurants in the Davenport area put one of their restaurants in the spot along with a dance club. They had a lot of problems with the dance club and ended up shutting down the whole facility a couple years ago. The Arora's came in and took over the spot. Raj Arora is the head cook at Mantra.
The main dining room isn't all that large and we had about a five minute wait for a booth at Mantra. I will have to say the room was very well lit. There were two waiters working the room, one of which was Jaspreet Arora. Once the table top was cleared, the other server called us over to the booth and handed us menus when we sat down.
The food at Mantra is your typical Indian fare - vindaloo, tandoori, kebabs, and curry dishes. They had an extensive list of lamb, chicken and seafood entrees, as well as a number of vegetarian meals on the menu. While their bread selection wasn't quite as extensive as I've seen at other Indian restaurants, they did have a number of the typical Indian appetizers and soups to choose from.
I've been kind of on a roll with lamb dishes as of late and at the top of the list for lamb entrees was the Rogan Josh - cubes of boneless lamb meat slow-cooked in a mixture of spices and herbs. I'd had the Rogan Josh at the Jaipur Brew House Indian restaurant in Omaha on a recent visit out there and it was very good. I was never a big fan of lamb before I had it with Indian food.
For me, it was going to be either between the Rogan Josh, Lamb Vindaloo, or the Chicken Curry. Cindy was looking at possibly getting Chicken Tandoori until I told her that it came with 8 chicken legs. I also cautioned her that tandoori has to be cooked precisely or it will get overcooked and dried out. I've had tandoori chicken a couple times and both times it had been overcooked, so I just stay away from it. She saw something else on the menu called Chicken Saagwala - boneless pieces of chicken cooked with fresh spinach, cilantro, ginger and herbs.
We were still looking over the menu when our server came back and asked what we'd like to drink. I got a Kingfisher beer while Cindy was surprised to see a pretty good list of wine on their drink menu. She got a glass of the William Hill merlot.
By the time Jaspreet brought our drinks, we were ready to order. The prices were very reasonable on the menu, indicating to me that the portions may not be all that large. Cindy decided upon the Chicken Saagwala. They cook it either mild, medium or hot. Jaspreet asked her, on a scale of 1 to 10 - mild to hot, how she wanted it. She said, "Oh, five, I guess." He said that was medium. Well, of course.
I decided upon the Rogan Josh, also medium. I figured that I wanted to taste the meal and not the burn. basmati rice came with our meals. And I also ordered up some of the garlic naan bread. Jaspreet asked, "Just one or two?" I asked him how big the naan was and he said he could eat one by himself. We stuck with one and said that we could order another if we needed.
We sort of figured that we'd have a wait for the food as the place was pretty full. The only problem was that a family was seated sort of toward the front of the restaurant and they had a baby - who was screaming - and a little two year old girl, who was screaming even louder. I mean, it was bad. The two year old was throwing a tantrum over something and the mother had to take the child outside a couple of times. While that was going on, the father was trying to shush the baby who continued to scream. Finally, to the delight of most everyone in the place, the mother came back in, gathered up the baby and the little girl and left. The father of the kids stayed behind with two other people who were seated at the table and they ended up getting his wife's food to go. Cindy said, "I can sympathize with the mother, but this is probably not a place to be bringing kids like that because this is not a big place."
With the screaming kids gone, the atmosphere in the restaurant became less tense. A second Kingfisher was ordered as we waited, and after about 25 minutes our food came out of the kitchen.
As I suspected, the portions were pretty small. They were served in small metal dishes, but that was fine with me. Too many times restaurants bring out large portions of food and you have to end up boxing it up and taking it home. And I never think that it's as good as when you have it fresh in the restaurant. The chunks of lamb meat were swimming in a fragrant sauce. Fresh cilantro topped my Rogan Josh (below left).
Cindy's Chicken Saagwala (above right) also had a pungent and thick sauce mixed in with the chunks of chicken. As with mine, cilantro topped her entree. She offered me a bite and it was good. It wasn't spicy in the least and had a hint of ginger in the bite. It was my first time trying Saagwala and I wasn't disappointed.
With the basmati rice, my Rogan Josh was just excellent. The mixture of the herbs and spices gave it a wonderful balance in taste. Quite actually, I could have stood it to be a little more spicy, thinking that next time asking for medium-hot would be the way to go. Mild at Mantra has to be palatable to most anyone who can't handle spicy food. The lamb meat was tender, not greasy at all, and was very flavorful in the sauce. I gave Cindy a cube and she asked for another - with more of the sauce. Hey, the portions weren't that big and it was so good that I was reluctant to give her another piece.
I almost forgot - the garlic naan was also very good. You could smell the garlic as the bread was sitting in its basket. The bread was pliable and tore easily to dip in our sauces. Jaspreet was right - one person could have easily eaten one order of naan bread. We contemplated getting a second order, but because they were so busy, we figured we'd be done with our meal before it got to the table. I scooped up every last drop of the great Rogan Josh sauce on my plate and in the serving bowl with the garlic naan.
The place had begun to clear out around 8:30 when we finished up our meal. Jaspreet came over to apologize for the delay in the food. "We were so busy tonight. It's getting that way now that we've been open for awhile." Cindy said for him not to worry - good food should take some time. We were fine.
Before we left, we began to look up toward the second floor of the restaurant. Cindy reminded me of when I brought her to the Italian Village restaurant almost 20 years ago that we sat upstairs. Jaspreet came over to us and asked us if we'd like to see the upstairs. He shepherded us up the stairs and showed us a bar area with more booths. He apologized for the mess - they were still working on the place - but he said they anticipated the bar area would be open in a few weeks, if not sooner. He told us that on the third floor, up another flight of stairs, they had a banquet room. And, something I didn't know, they had a downstairs basement area that had a pool table and a small bar.
While I'm still far from an Indian food expert, I do know what I like and the food at Mantra was simply excellent. The portions are small enough and the price (10 to 12 bucks per entree) is economical enough that two people could easily get three different entries and eat family style at Mantra. We may do that on our next visit because I wasn't full in the least after finishing half the naan and my serving of the Rogan Josh. And we're definitely going more spicy next time, too. Cindy would like to go back for the buffet lunch at some point to try other things they have on the menu. Just be ready to wait for either a food or table - or both - because the place is getting pretty popular. (Note - Mantra is closed on Sunday.)