Indian food anywhere in the western world can be divided into three categories. These are: the Good (with sub-divisions Very Good and Brilliant), the Indifferent (the Chicken Korma and Rogan Josh taste the same everywhere you go) and the downright Horrific (only to be visited after all chances of getting more drink have expired and if you are not within 15 miles of a kebab vendor).
Yet Indian food (and in this I include Pakistani and Bangladeshi) is, at its best, sublime. The mantra must be 'separate, but together': when the spices used create a harmonious mélange of flavour without each one losing its individual identity, then the chef has cracked it. The secret of Indian cooking is a well-stocked pantry. From this palette of nuts, seeds, spices, herbs, flours and essences a good cook creates a culinary masterpiece.
As it happens, Bangles and I hadn't intended to eat Indian last Tuesday. Our original intention was to dine at Chameleon, an Indonesian restaurant on the cusp of Temple Bar, to which we were tempted by a recent enthusiastic review from another critic.
I walked past the restaurant en route to our rendezvous, the bar at the IFSC, and found the place shuttered and padlocked. So much for the power of the press. Casting around for an alternative, I remembered Mantraa.
I had eaten in this newish Indian restaurant but once before, invited there last month by Garden (Wicklow and South County Dublin) Slow Food Convivium supremo Hermione Winters to attend an afternoon learning about spices, their culinary and medicinal uses.
Mantraa opened in low-key fashion just before Christmas, in a basement formerly used to house a Thai restaurant and, before that, a Japanese one. The chef at Mantraa is Avinash Mohan, formerly of the excellent Rasam in Sandycove. Avinash is from Kerala, the garden state in southern India, as are the rest of the staff.
Mantraa will now be added to next year's roll of the eating places at which my identity is rumbled. The waiter said, "Welcome Mr Whalley" and, throughout the night, seemed to be hovering close at hand. Not once, but several times, he enquired, nervously it seemed, as to whether we were having a good time. God, am I that scary?
Anyhow, he needn't have worried. We were having a good time. We kicked off with popadoms, served with three accompaniments. One was an utterly brilliant lemon chutney of which I requested an encore. I liked the Lamb Pepper Fry starter so much I asked for (and later received) the recipe.
We also sampled the Karkare Jhinga, large prawns in a crispy overcoat, with slices of ripe mango, lemon, coriander and a fresh tomato confit, and Tandoori Murgh, chicken with fresh mint, chopped so the aroma sang out, and a delightful pomegranate chutney.
We selected our main courses from a section of the menu entitled: "Divine." This proved to be no idle boast. I saw there was a Beef Pepper Fry among the mains and was tempted. In the event, I chose a lamb dish, Koh-E-Awadh, 'clove-smoked', then slow-cooked in a fresh ginger, turmeric and almond sauce, unusual, delicious and you could pick out every individual constituent.
Bangles had the Murgh Angara, chicken in a fresh tomato, coriander, red chilli and fennel sauce in which the fennel sang through. We also, greedy beggars that we are, ordered a dal, not the best I've ever tasted but 'of merchantable quality' as lawyers say. This would have been more than enough except that the waiter prevailed upon us to try the cabbage with mustard and curry leaves. Glad he did; this dish was a stand-out. The accompanying pulao rice and, particularly, the naan were exceptional.
A bottle of South African Chenin, clean but otherwise unremarkable, served to quench our thirst. We finished with cardamom tea made in the proper fashion, milk boiled in the pot, and a French press of invigorating ginger-laced coffee.
I would recommend Mantraa highly, both for the smart cooking and for the friendliness of the staff. The one caveat is the decor, which won't win any prizes, and, of course it's in a basement and I know how much you lot dislike eating in basements. Banish your prejudice and give it a go.
Verdict: Some fine cooking, which is a notch or three above the Indian restaurant norm.
Rating: * * *
Mantraa Indian Restaurant, 132 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 662 0102