Monday, March 12, 2012

Eating Indian in Temecula

Richard had new glasses made at Costco and he discussed restaurants with the Indian woman serving him. She mentioned "Mantra" stating that it was far and away the best Indian restaurant in Temecula. She had a dot, he thought -  she ought to know. The only other locals we've tried are "A Taste of India" and "The Blue Peacock".

We frequented Taste of India for several years while our Swiss friends were living in Fallbrook. It was a favorite of theirs. Service completely fell apart over the past few years. We'd often be the only people in the place and have to wake up the patriarch who manned the front door and cash register, by pulling on his sleeve or banging on his pagari turban to ask for a water refill. After the third visit with this kind of unapologetic and appalling service, we gave up. It was right about then they combined their Indian grocery/video rental with the restaurant so any trace of ambiance evaporated. Don't get me wrong, I love joints and often it's in just such quirky spots you find really interesting food and service. Not here. We tried The Blue Peacock several times and never had a decent dish, but enjoyed the non-stop Bollywood movies on their flat screens, the cheerful service and complimentary candy coated anise seed at the front door. Once when I ordered to-go they included a cupful of the seeds they knew I loved. After two or three visits, the mediocre food couldn't compensate for the other pluses.  

As we pulled up to Mantra, we noticed the neon "massage" sign on an adjacent building. Residing just under the upstairs massage parlor is some kind of church. An interesting juxtaposition and I wonder who was there first - or if they're operated by the same people?  If you're hankering for Indian food, spiritual awakening and a rubdown, you only have to park once.

Mantra has an undistinguished interior, but the seats are comfortable and noise level tolerable. There's a long buffet set-up running down one wall. Try to ignore all that gleaming stainless steel, so cold and unwelcoming. The deadly empty Indian restaurant buffet has a morgue-like ambiance that I'm sure doesn't register negatively with the operators. They see and hear the cash register ringing - and I understand for their Indian clientele it is strictly de rigeur.  The music cranks up as the restaurant fills and can be annoying if the place is busy. Fortunately they have booths and Richard and I can sit comfortably side by side which means we can converse while we eat. So often not the case.

The menu is pretty typical Indian fare and we order the standard items. You can review the menu at their lively web site:

Mantra Restaurants

A complimentary basket of papadum(?) with three sauces comes first to keep you amused while you decide on your order. The three sauces are delicious: a chutney, a mint/cilantro/vinegar and a very hot chili sauce. We start with garlic naan and usually have some sort of chicken - tandoori or last time chicken in coconut sauce or a fish curry. The vegetable korma here is outstanding. Basmati rice pilaf is just OK. Another must for us is the panek paneer. All dishes can be ordered mild, medium, spicy. The servings are small but we always end up with to-go boxes which are mostly left-over sauce; we can usually eke out a second semi-Indian meal by using the sauces on whatever we eat the next day.

Service is very good. The waiter remembered us on our second or third visit and we had a warm welcome. They're unafraid to make recommendations and have steered us to a new dish or two and we've enjoyed them all. In fact we've never had a disappointment. At door exit, they offer the healthier plain anise seed/ rock sugar combo - not bad, but in my opinion, they don't hold a candle to the candied version. One tablespoon of this stuff does the flavor/heat abatement trick and provides toothpick challenges for hours ahead.

Pricing is fair; there's a nominal selection of wines but skip these and have a beer - there's a small selection including KingFisher which I like because of the name and the label...the beer is barely OK. (I know this is silly but it's the same process I apply to picking horses at the race track). Or choose or one of their delicious lassi's. Richard ordered the mango flavor last time and it was divine.



  1. Will tell the wife, who loves indian fare "she had a dot, she ought to know." I can't tolerate garam masala - think it's genetic.

  2. Sounds good. Wish I was there right now.
    I choose wine by the design of the label and horses by the poetry of their name or the colors the jockey is wearing. Are we wrong?

  3. the restaurant, massage parlor, church combo is hilarious.

    Wish I could have a mango lassi right now. I have fond memories of the ones Megan and I had in Buttonwillow. Now that I have my new immersion blender (which came yesterday by-the-way), I can make my own. Can't wait. Do you have a recipe?