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Chunks of ahi tuna are seared on the outside and red and raw in the center. They're scattered along a skinny, plank-shaped cracker teetering on a nest of crisp mixed greens tossed in a garlic-soy dressing. Hiding below is a nice-sized mound of truffled mashed potatoes.
The ahi tuna salad at Mantra, the new pan-Asian fusion restaurant and sushi bar on Main Street, sounds like an odd combination. Then you take a bite. Rich, comforting mouthfuls of buttery tuna and warm, creamy potatoes are intermittently sparked by the high-chlorophyll fireworks of the mizuno-heavy salad mix. It's a wild ride, as far as salads go. I wash it down with a cold draft sake.
Fusion dishes like sushi-and-mashed-potato salad probably come naturally to an Asian-Eastern European-American chef. Mike Potowski is half Japanese and half Lithuanian; he grew up in Japan and, after moving to the United States, worked for many years as a sushi chef at Houston's Miyako restaurant. He went on to compose the highly regarded pan-Asian fusion menu at Rickshaw on Westheimer. Mantra is Potowski's first solo effort. Here, he has the freedom to push fusion cuisine to its limits and beyond.
My two dining companions are sushi lovers, and they came here intending to order the usual salmon, tuna, yellowtail and unagi rolls. But they end up with a selection of the restaurant's wildly creative house sushi rolls instead. The habanero tuna tempura and avocado-cilantro puree in the El Picante promise a heat rush, but unfortunately, Potowski chickened out on the chiles, and the El Picante turns out to be the blandest thing on the table. We much prefer the Big Kahuna, a loud Hawaiian shirt of a sushi roll with soft-shell crab, spicy yellowtail, avocado and garlic sauce all vying for your tongue's attention.
The caramelized onions and spicy salmon in the Aphrodisiac roll remind me of the Jewish breakfast dish made by stirring lox and caramelized onions into scrambled eggs. The name alludes to the cooked oysters that co-star. Other internationally accented sushi rolls include the Kama Sutra with its Bollywood blend of mango slaw and lobster tempura, the Hawaiian Kamehameha with peppered ahi, avocado and Maui salsa, and the Caribbean Bahama Mama, made with ceviche and papaya.
Potowski seems to delight in turning culture clashes into culinary fashion statements. The "seafood trio" appetizer features raw tuna, salmon and lobster in three sparkling sushi salads, each served in a delicate hand roll. But instead of wrapping the salad fillings in the usual sheets of nori (seaweed), Potowski scoops them into crispy cones made of French pastry sheets. They come out looking and tasting like sushi ice cream cones.
The restaurant's walk-on-the-wild-side decor echoes its far-out fusion concept brilliantly. To get from the front door to the greeter's stand, you have to traverse a long welcome mat of fresh sod. Then you enter an enormous front lounge area furnished like a sultan's harem with dramatic velvet curtains, overstuffed chairs, rococo couches, lots of pillows and some large imaginative upholstered objects, including the column that supports the ceiling.
The dining room and the sushi bar are a design jumble. The light fixtures over our table look like a modernist take on Moroccan oil lamps; covering the walls are Thai fabric panels embroidered with elephants. The wooden tables in the dining room are inset with high-tech stainless-steel tops, and the stools at the sushi bar are made with black wrought iron twisted into deco curves and loops.
But the choicest seats in the restaurant are in the outdoor dining area on the Main Street sidewalk. Instead of the usual plastic lawn furniture, Mantra equips its outdoor tables with big overstuffed armchairs. On the way in, we paused for a while to see if anybody looked like they were about to leave.
While we were standing there, I overheard a good-looking young man dressed in black and smoking a cigarette ordering another sushi roll from the waiter. He and the four other people in his party, who were also fashionably dressed, were ordering one sushi roll at a time and placing them in the center of the table. They were obviously much more intent on the cocktails and conversation than on the cuisine. After our leisurely dinner, we walked out the front door, and the same group was still sitting there. Who could blame them?
I love the fruitlike aromas and fresh taste of cold draft sake, especially as the weather gets warmer. It's also usually the best value on an upscale sake menu. On my first visit, I was impressed with Mantra's presentation. The waiter brought the 250-milliliter bottle of Hakutsuru draft to the table in a little ice bucket and poured it into clear sake glasses, which is exactly the way namazake (draft sake) should be served, according to Hakutsuru's Web site.
On my second visit, I order draft sake again. This time it comes to the table hot and is served in a sake pitcher and matching ceramic cups. When I object, the waiter agrees to replace it with cold sake. But first he has to let us know what a huge favor this is by giving the table a moronic lecture about how draft sake is usually served warm.
Mantra hasn't been open very long, and there are still some problems with the service. On that second visit, five of us order an assortment of sushi rolls, appetizers and entrées, which we share. There are few customers in the restaurant, but most of them are apparently ordering sushi. Our appetizers and entrées come out of the otherwise idle kitchen at warp speed, but the sushi rolls finally land on our table around the time we're thinking about dessert.
Compared to the wildly creative appetizers, the entrées are surprisingly subdued. Arctic char is a rich and expensive freshwater cousin of salmon; it's favored by the Inuit peoples of the far north and is usually exceptionally moist thanks to a high oil content. At Mantra, the arctic char is "sansho crusted" and served on a bed of "tatsoi." Sansho turns out to be a Japanese peppercorn, and tatsoi is a Chinese leafy green. These ingredients seem to have been included primarily for the sake of their inscrutable names. Neither is as interesting as the rice noodles and oyster mushrooms that also accompany the fish. Unfortunately, the arctic char consists of two small triangular tail-end pieces that come out overcooked and dry.
On the menu, Chinese stir-fried lobster is described as a two-pound lobster with Chinese vegetables. Lacking a two-pounder, the kitchen substitutes two one-pounders. But as any lobster lover will tell you, it just ain't the same. It's much easier to get at the meat in the leg and body sections of a two-pounder, and that makes it a much better bargain.
The lobster pieces come to the table in the shells but are precracked for easy access. The only vegetable appears to be the baby broccoli called broccolini. And according to the waiter, the brown sauce in the bottom of the bowl is made of white wine and garlic with a little ginger. It isn't very exciting, nor is it very Chinese.
Mantra is a cool new restaurant right beside the light rail line on what's becoming an interesting stretch of Main Street. I intend to be there often, though in the future, I will probably stick to the sushi, appetizer and soup-and-salad sections of the menu. This kind of exciting but not very filling food is perfectly suited to Mantra's loungelike layout and its location in the heart of the NoDo Zona Rosa.
But be forewarned, you better get there early if you want a table on the patio.