My wife turns to me and notes that we are walking on grass, noteworthy, I suppose, because we're inside a restaurant. "If the menu has a Hee Haw theme, we're outta here," I tell her. But as the words leave my mouth I start taking in the room and see that Hee Haw is definitely not what Tantra is about. The word tantra refers to Hindu or Buddhist writings on magic and mysticism; this Miami Beach restaurant, which opened this past December at Pennsylvania Avenue and Espanola Way, is aptly named. Big fat candles sit on green marble tabletops; red half-moon banquettes are draped in white netting; a motionless disco ball reflects soothing light onto gray cement walls; numerous Indian artifacts adorn the room (five tons of statues from that country are currently being shipped). Patrons smoke hookahs and waiters wear maroon Indian-style shirts; there are many other hedonistic new-age and Eastern touches. If the ambiance at Tantra were a song, it would be performed by a group composed of the Spice Girls, Ravi Shankar, and Enya.
While the room is rooted in India, the menu is a veritable world tour: Central American prawns; tuna tartare with lime, coconut, and cilantro; beluga caviar with frozen vodka and sweet potato blinis; salmon with a wasabi and ginger crust accompanied by Japanese long beans; North American wild boar chops with bordelaise sauce; sun-dried cherry and duck confit risotto; and so on. Israel and Iceland must be furious -- they're just about the only nations not represented here. Michael Heiden, who co-owns Tantra with Tim Hogle, is quick to point out that there is a unifying theme to the seemingly random cuisine: "Every item contains some sensual, aphrodisiac quality." Now there's a crowd-pleasing concept.
The conceptualization of the breads, on the other hand, needs some work. Strips of focaccia, triangles of grilled flat bread, and slices of sourdough and pumpernickel come nestled under a blanket of white cloth -- all laid out neatly side by side on a large plate like a family of sleeping carbohydrates in bed together. Actually it's not the breads that are asleep but rather the person in charge of making sure they're fresh; on two different visits here the focaccia was stale, and on one occasion so was the flat bread. Also drowsy is the idea of presenting them in a horizontal and space-inefficient manner. On our second trip to Tantra we chose to sit at a larger table, not for any personal need to stretch out but so that our silverware would still be visible once the appetizers were placed alongside the breads.
I use the word appetizers, but the Tantra menu refers to them as "enticements"; this is a sensual as well as an accurate description. Starters are supposed to be small tastings that tease and arouse the appetite -- foreplay to the main course. Sometimes this practice of making sure the appetizers aren't too filling can be taken too far, however, which is the case with Tantra's stuffed calamari. Tightly packed with moist salmon and snapper, the squid is grilled tenderly and paired with warm lentils and a curry beurre blanc; at $12, one squat squid body seems skimpy.
The lobster salad also has an is-that-all-there-is? quality. The Maine lobster tail is nicely portioned and the claw hefty, but the menu also promises South American white prawns and calamari. What you get is just one shrimp and a trio of calamari rings arranged like the old Ballantine beer logo. Worse, while the lobster tail is imbued with a musky hint of truffle vinaigrette, the other plainly poached components of this plate come served sans melted butter or cocktail, remoulade, or mustard sauce. Not even a lemon wedge. They do come accompanied, however, with fresh, zestily dressed field greens.
Better starters: foie gras peppered and seared rare, served with thin slices of brioche toast, a clump of balsamic vinegar-bathed field greens, and a compote of sun-dried cherries, poached figs, and sweet port wine. And a special one evening was three meaty scallops sauteed with lemon and Grand Marnier -- light and sprightly, with a tiny bundle of pencil asparagus on the side.
Wild boar tails in hot sauce were the Buffalo wings of the Middle Ages, but nowadays menus rarely bear any boar. This makes Tantra's boar chops a most interesting option (and at $39 a most expensive one), but our modern sensibilities lead us instead to the pan-seared Atlantic yellowfin tuna. The cumin-crusted fish is sushi-smooth atop a jasmine rice patty flecked with macadamia nuts, almonds, and pine nuts. A warm lemon vinaigrette rests below the tuna, fried parsnip curls on top. Closer to home is the Florida Keys yellowtail snapper wrapped and steamed in a dark-green banana leaf. After what seems like just a few bites of this sweet-fleshed fish, I noticed that there was no more snapper to be had. I poked around the nooks and crannies of the banana parcel with my fork, looking to see if a chunk of the fish was hiding, perhaps buried under the julienne of carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, and onions. No such luck. Too bad, because it was quite delicious, and the rusty-red Chinese five-spice sauce provocatively piquant.
Another great Asian-influenced sauce is the sake cream that comes pooled beneath a behemoth bone-in beef tenderloin. The steak was ordered medium rare and served medium raw. The kitchen is consistent in this matter -- our tuna was similarly undercooked. Truffled mashed potatoes accompany the aged and tender steak, as do shoestring potatoes. Not to keep bickering about price, but for $32 you'd think they could've thrown in a vegetable. Must be Tantra's way of encouraging the ordering of side dishes, there being a half-dozen from which to choose. We tried two: a roasted quinoa salad, which has a nice nutty flavor that will please fans of this ancient Peruvian grain; and a wild mushroom composition that was supposed to come with the snapper but didn't. Made up mostly of shiitake mushrooms, it was wrapped and crisply baked in phyllo -- tasty, but it seems more appropriate as an appetizer than an accompaniment.
As for Tantra's sensual/aphrodisiac concept, it seems like a tenuous unifying thread. True, certain foods contain more alluring aromatic and textural qualities than others, but an aphrodisiacal meal is often just a great one accompanied by the right person and copious amounts of the right wine. Serving hijiki and oeufs brouilles in what is essentially a beautiful Indian restaurant is like offering an American steak house menu in a Chinese carry-out. Tantra has the right idea with the aforementioned calamari with lentils and curry beurre blanc, and also with braised lamb shank "osso buco" style (the restaurant's quotation marks, not mine). It comes cooked to a soft consistency with a mild curry sauce, Brussels sprouts, baby carrots that need to be cooked a few more minutes, and creamy mascarpone mashed potatoes. These two dishes are to real Indian food as George Hamilton in a Nehru jacket is to a real Indian man, but that's all right. They're good (and good-looking), creative, and at harmony with their environment.
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I can't imagine the desserts here being at harmony with any environment. Lemon tart features lemon curd in a hard shell (and I'm not saying that just because after struggling to cut it with my fork the thing went skidding off my plate and across the table). Ginger cream tart consists of the same shell filled with gingerless whipped cream, blackberries, and strawberry slices. Grilled fruit tart is strike three: no custard, just a dab of apricot puree between the by-now-familiar shatterproof crust, plus a measly smattering of grilled fruit -- slice of kiwi, sliver of peach, orange section, anemic strawberry half, and two transparently thin pineapple slices. Forget the tarts and stick with the homemade sorbets, including refreshing pomegranate or amazingly uplifting litchi nut, a heavenly finish to a meal of any ethnicity.
If the owners of Tantra read this review, their response will likely be "Indian, shmindian," because at the moment they're packing the place every night. In many ways the restaurant's early success is well deserved. The ambiance is tough to beat, the service efficient, and it's a darn fun (and romantic) place to dine. The implication that a meal here will enhance sexual desire probably won't hurt business, either. Undercooked food, forgotten garnishes, and ill-conceived desserts are not to be taken lightly, however, particularly at these prices. Chef Michael B. Jacobs and sous chef Robert Mauro are using fresh, high-quality ingredients and pairing them with consistently good sauces. If they can work out the kitchen's kinks and perhaps rein in their multicultural menu meanderings, there's no reason the crowds won't keep coming back.
1445 Pennsylvania Ave, Miami Beach; 672-4765. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 7:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Foie gras au poivre
Maine lobster salad
Florida Keys snapper
Litchi nut sorbet