Some years ago, when I was still writing my Headcase column, I interviewed a local psychologist on the subject of tantric sex, which is all about screwing your way to blissful spiritual transcendence. I'm not talking about having the oh-my-god orgasm. I'm talking about an entire weekend of touring the cosmos more by delaying orgasm than having the perfect one. This was the description of the psychologist's experience, anyway.
In its more authentic representation, the broader term "tantra" refers to a path toward enlightenment in certain Hindu and Buddhist paths. Sex is a small part of it, if it's a part at all. But in the West, where the body is still locked in Puritanism, the sensual aspect is regarded as most liberating. "Tantra," "tantric sex" and even "pleasure" have become synonymous.
I thought it was kind of ballsy — bad pun — for a new restaurant to name itself Tantra (2285 Peachtree Road, Suite 100, 404-228-7963). It has opened in the space that was most recently Ibiza, next door to Imperial Fez, itself a pleasure palace of sorts. And that is truly what the new restaurant strives to be. You enter through a pair of huge, nondescript wooden doors and find yourself in a rectangular space of red and gold, There's a shimmering statue of the Buddha behind the bar and there's a large fuzzy depiction of a couple in ancient Indian dress kind of cuddling. Buddha Bar-style music plays. The website refers to "Tantra's international decadence and charm." It kind of works, despite the kitschification of actual tantra.
And the food works, too. At first glance the menu is confusingly mundane. It looks much like the usual New American menu and in many ways it is. But executive chef Terry Dwyer has used some unexpected spices here and there, inspired by the flavors of the Silk Road, the ancient caravan route from Europe to the Far East. The food is certainly not as exotic as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's menu at Spice Market, but we had an entertaining meal.
The dinner started with complimentary lavosh and a butter seasoned with feta cheese, kalamata olives and dill. Yes, the ingredients gave the butter an odd texture, but the flavors were nice with the crispy lavosh.
As a starter, I chose a plate of three varieties of hummus served with warm, fluffy naan (rather than the usual pita). Wayne and I agreed that the usual chickpea variety was the best, followed by a musky edamame. Third place went to the usual variety spiked with the formerly fashionable white truffle oil.
Wayne selected a salad of jumbo lump crab over mixed greens. It also included shaved asparagus, tomatoes and a dressing of orange-verjuice yogurt, which I found a bit heavy. The most interesting ingredient was pieces of Persian kuku sabzi, which is basically a super-dense omelet with spinach. Pomegranate seeds were scattered on the plate. This was a case of the ingredients being more impressive than the overall effect. The crab itself was not as fresh as I'd like, or it was simply overwhelmed by the dressing.
The chef also sent us cups of incredibly rich pistachio soup, which was essentially ground nuts in cream. No broth at all. Richer and tastier than pistachio ice cream. If you order the soup and another starter, you're going to feel overwhelmed.
My entrée, a fat cube of short ribs braised in a pomegranate sauce, was the best dish of the evening. This put me in mind of a similar chicken dish I recently ate at nearby Sufi's. Here, the sweetness of the sauce was much less intense and further tempered by a remarkable mound of braised collards and mustard greens, themselves a mix of sweet and bitter flavors. Potato-crusted basmati rice was also on the plate.
Wayne ordered chili-seared Hawaiian tuna. I didn't find the exterior of the fish spicy at all, but the sliced tuna was first-quality, served atop daikon salad and more of the edamame hummus. A drizzle of interesting cilantro-yogurt sauce topped the fish. The chef also insisted we try a bowl of glazed carrots with a faint taste of tarragon. Nice but too sweet for the short rib.
For dessert we ordered a serving of almond-pistachio baklava with a light orange syrup. It was not made with the usual layers of crispy filo but was deliciously awash in rose water.
The bar produces an array of playful cocktails. Wayne happily guzzled one made with gin, thyme and lemon. Service, generally, was terrific. The servers knew the ingredients of every dish.
Tantra was fun, but not like the Story of O fun.
On Ponce de Leon Avenue
The Real Chow Baby has opened another location in Midtown at 782 Ponce de Leon Ave. The operation is the same as the Westside location. You pick your ingredients from a huge selection of noodles, rice, veggies and meats and they are stir-fried before your very eyes. It's an all-you-can eat deal.
The staff was very helpful and dealt well with my extreme annoyance after being told I had no choice but to use the valet, even though the parking lot was half empty.