Of course Bostonians are dazzled by Mantra, the French-Indian restaurant that opened there this summer: The city has been fascinated by India since the eighteenth century, when its merchants began plying the trade routes between Massachusetts Bay and the Bay of Bengal and bringing back fabrics, teas and exotic spices.
At Mantra, Thomas John deftly melds the seasonings of the subcontinent with New England ingredients and French techniques. A number of chefs are working in the Indian-fusion vein, but John has an edge: He grew up in the south Indian state of Kerala, in a region so rich in peppercorns, ginger and cinnamon that it's known as the Spice Coast.
John comes to Boston from Le Méridien hotel in Pune, near Bombay, and his background shows in such dishes as saffron-scented coconut soup with a poached oyster, monkfish marinated in ginger and then roasted in a tandoori oven, and honey-glazed duck breast with a green coriander curry. Pastry chef Ernie Quinones, most recently of the Four Seasons Houston, reiterates the fusion theme with a trio of tropical crème brûlées and a lemon tart served with a raspberry-black pepper sauce.
Mantra makes a visual statement, too. Architect Nader Tehrani has juxtaposed the cool futurism of chain-link draperies with the mod orientalism of a 20-foot-tall woven-wood hookah den where guests puff on fruit-flavored tobaccos (52 Temple Pl.; 617-542-8111).