Where: 6913 Maple St.
Information: 402-933-1666, mantraomaha.com
Hours: Monday, 4:30 p.m. to close; Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to close; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to close.
About: Mantra offers a wide array of cocktails, and owner Mac Thompson said the bartender at the restaurant aims to take classic drinks and give them a contemporary, modern twist. The strawberry daiquiri on the menu, for instance, is made with a hibiscus flower syrup and comes garnished with an edible blossom.
Mantra has a large outdoor patio that Thompson said is becoming more popular as the weather gets more moderate. He has plans to do additional outdoor landscaping in the patio area.
Thompson said though Mantra isn't a sports bar, the television sets in the space will show games in the evening. The restaurant has the NFL Ticket. Later in the evening, the televisions change to music videos, and Thompson wants to create an after-dinner vibe where people can enjoy a cocktail or dessert.
The menu is undergoing some changes. Thompson said he wants to include more sandwiches and gluten-free items. The restaurant also has a happy hour with discounted appetizers and drinks daily from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then again from 9:30 p.m. to close.
Mantra also has a list of dinner specials, priced between $9.95 and $19.50. Steaks, salmon, tuna tacos, Mantra mac and cheese and a Thai vegetable salad made up a recent menu, along with two types of mussels served as appetizers.
I went into Mantra, Benson's newest restaurant, with high expectations.
Because if there's any restaurateur who can run two businesses at once, it's a veteran like Malcolm “Mac” Thompson.
He's been in the business here for more than 30 years, and aside from Mantra, he runs the popular Taxi's Grille and Bar in west Omaha. I reviewed that earlier this year and liked it quite a bit. He also ran the legendary Neon Goose, along with YOYO Grille, Category One and Kitchen Gourmet.
But it turns out that holding down two kitchens on opposite sides of the city is pretty tough. Thompson told me so himself.
“I hadn't planned on this taking as much of my time as it has,” he told me. “You'd think being in the business for 35 years I'd have known it.”
People expect to see Thompson at Mantra. But they also expect to see him at Taxi's. His presence, he said, is important. But he can't be in two places at once.
The two times I visited Mantra when Thompson was in the kitchen, the food was good.
The night when he was leaving just as I arrived, things weren't so hot.
Mantra is uneven. But if Thompson works his magic — and I believe he could — there's some good to work with at his midtown spot.
Mantra is the polar opposite, atmospherically, from Taxi's. It's more modern and feels more industrial, though not unwelcomingly so, and it has a restaurant-meets-dance club vibe. Pop music played and television sets on both the east and west walls were tuned to sports. The crowd spanned many age groups and demographics — young families, young couples and large groups of middle-aged diners.
We started our first visit with the arancini. I've been seeing these fried risotto balls popping up on menus all over town, and Mantra's were some of the best I've had. The outsides were crisp and hot, and inside, the risotto was green with fresh pesto, which I loved. Arancini can fall into the bland trap; these didn't. A side of horseradish sauce was a bit overpowering, but in moderation it created nice contrast.
Mantra has a big list of house cocktails, and we tried two: the lemon grass and elderflower sidecar and the blood orange ritatini. Thompson told me later that the most popular drink on the menu is the orange pomegranate mojito.
I really liked the ritatini, a magenta-hued mix of margarita and martini. It was sweet with blood orange. The sidecar wasn't as sweet, and I liked it save for the loose stalks of lemon grass in the glass that got in the way of drinking.
There's lots of comfort food on the menu, a contrast to the atmosphere.
My meatloaf entree was herbacious and tender, with a rich brown gravy. It came with a mound of smooth mashed potatoes and super-garlicky zucchini. Unprompted, the waitress brought me a side of the house-made barbecue sauce, which was tasty. The dish had Thompson written all over it.
The chicken enchiladas, for my husband, could have been spicier, but he had no complaints otherwise. The presentation of his dish surpassed mine. It was bright with avocado, sour cream, green salsa and pico de gallo. He liked the soft corn tortillas filled with tender chicken.
Thompson said he wants to keep the food at Mantra “simple and clean” and focus on quality rather than creativity. The menu, he said, is still in transition.
On the second visit, the one without Thompson, almost everything stumbled.
The lamb lollipops came out poked with tongue-depressor-thick sticks; Thompson told me later that they ran out of the regular, thinner sticks that night. The lamb was rich and nicely seasoned, but both the presentation and the accompanying sauce, thin and ranchlike, puzzled me. The lamb was much too strong for the wan sauce, a cilantro shallot cream, and who wants to eat a mini burger off a stick? Not me.
I didn't really want to order the penne pasta on the menu, mostly because I didn't really get why it was there in the first place. Almost everything else on the menu appealed to me more than such a safe, standard pasta dish. But I ordered it anyway, because I figured a lot of other diners do. And Thompson confirmed later that it's one of the most popular entrees.
It was OK. Chunks of chicken were nicely seasoned, but the red sauce was standard and the pasta was from a box. I saw lots of fresh herbs in the dish, but the flavor still fell flat.
Thompson said the pasta is meant to be basic.
“Truthfully, the quality isn't where I want it to be,” he said. “It's one I've been questioning.”
A Mantra burger came out inexplicably blackened, and tasted of charcoal. Even a tasty pretzel bun and another side of that house-made barbecue sauce couldn't salvage it.
Thompson said he's still working on the kitchen staff.
“You never start with a perfect crew,” he said. “Staff has been a concern.”
The wait staff we encountered was effective and prompt. I had only one complaint: On our second visit, I heard another server reading off a long list of specials to a neighboring table and our table hadn't heard them.
We visited again, for brunch.
I tried another house cocktail, the St. Germain and pear mixed with white wine, and found it lightly fruity and refreshing.
I ordered the decadent pistachio cake french toast. I have a major sweet tooth, and this caloric, once-a-year-type treat was right up my alley.
Punctuated with crunchy bits of nuts, the green pound cake toast was dense and delicious. It comes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. It's over the top.
Thompson said the restaurant also serves the pistachio cake as a dessert, and after he heard of a restaurant doing french toast with red velvet cake, he gave it a go. Before it's cooked, he dips the cake in a Grand Marnier sauce. The exterior of the toast is crisp and the inside is soft.
A crab cake benedict was the polar opposite, deeply savory. The home fries were top-notch, mealy, hot and crisp all at once. The crab cakes were mostly crab instead of filler, and the poached egg was perfectly executed.
Thompson said Mantra is still deciding what it wants to be: a sports bar with bar food or a fine-dining destination with television sets.
He's also aiming to build the same kind of reliable staff in midtown that he has in west Omaha.
“When I opened Taxi's, I was 10 years younger,” he said. “It's getting harder for me.”
Figuring out the food and correcting some staff issues seem to be his number one priority, and that makes sense. Because ultimately, the food is what will make his new midtown venture as successful as all his others.
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