A hedonist haven that pleases the senses, Tantra's got belly dancers, sexy Arabian Nights decor. (Think grass carpets, renderings of Hindu gods and goddesses, and beautiful Moroccan style chandeliers.) Everything here is designed to stir up foreplay on the dance floor, from aphrodisiac dishes like the Tantra plate (oysters, shrimp, calamari, crab and eel) to the decadent cocktails. Tribal and house music, mixed with Middle Eastern beats, propel long nights of hip-shaking.
Soft candlelight and sensual Middle Eastern music, swelling to dance-clubpitch as the evening wears on, set the swelling mood for adventure, formystery, for love. For the playful, in a room off to the side, a rope hammockdangles from the ceiling and can accommodate four; close the door for privateparties.
This is not, no matter appearances, a house of ill repute. It is Tantra,the reigning palace of decadence among the many contenders in South Beach, therestaurant on the national magazines' In lists after a year in business at thespot formerly known as Tita's. Gloriously expensive and over-the-top lush, itis a hedonistic haven for dining, drinking, dancing and spending.
It's a seasonal hangout for the celebrities who pass through town, whererock stars have been known to swing from the ceiling and movie directors havebeen spotted with voluptuous new ``projects'' on each arm, where each nightseems either to be the last before the advent of Prohibition or the firstafterward.
The menu devised by chef Michelle Bernstein, 28, promoted as a kind ofculinary version of Viagra, is engineered to increase the libido (as if thepresence of myriad models of both sexes were not already doing that).Purportedly aphrodisiac ingredients are mixed into many dishes and cited assuch by the menu: Foie gras, said to be one of Casanova's favorite tools ofseduction; rabbit (``in eating it, the diner partakes in the chase;'') caviar,which the seductress Catherine II of Russia fed to her paramour on the nightshe finally conceived; ginger, ``the most powerful aphrodisiac among spices.''(Note: These ingredients don't work quite so well when eaten in a place thatdoes not resemble a Moroccan opium den.)
The food is often stunning, always good, never dull. Prices are stunning,too, starting with $12 for a small bowl of lobster bisque, albeit a rich andsucculent, creamy brew, pale pink lobster stock, a bit of tomato and cream,thickened with finely ground lobster bodies and a liberal shot of Spanishsherry, with bits of lobster meat thrown in.
Kataifi-wrapped goat cheese ($17), another starter, has as its base acarpaccio of yellow tomatoes, arugula, bits of asparagus and a vinaigrettemade of oven-dried tomato. On top rests a warm, salty ball of goat cheeseseasoned with black and pink peppercorns, wrapped in shredded phyllo dough andpan-fried; the crunchy exterior and soft cheese play wonderfully off oneanother.
The lone salad, Tantra's Greens ($12), is a platter of mixed baby greenstossed with Gorgonzola and red grapes and doused with a vinaigrette of sherryvinegar and walnut oil and peppered with pieces of fresh-toasted walnut. Onthe side is a goodie: a large crouton spread with duck liver pate, a dullingmatch against the puckery dressing and spicy greens. This is meant to be eatenslowly and savored.
The entree menu has a lot of seafood, a couple of vegetarian selections anda gorge-yourself Tantra Filet ($38). This is the 10- to 12-ounce center-cutfilet mignon, three-inches high and four-inches square, a steak appropriatelyjuicy and lush but even more so large, grilled and drizzled with a dark saucemade largely of sundried cherries. It arrives atop a hopelessly rich andcreamy potato gratin casserole flavored with truffle butter, foie grasdrippings and shallot cream, plus fontina, reggiano, peccorino romano,Monterey Jack and sometimes brie cheeses. Assorted fresh vegetables finish offthe plate. Eat all this and you will be in the mood for sleep, not love.
Much lighter but also less of a grandiose statement is the sauteed sea bass($34). This fat filet of fish is seared and placed atop a ``fondue'' offennel, celery, Vidalia onions and leeks braised in white wine and reggiano;all rest in a thick reduction of sauteed shallots and grapes in pinot noir andred-wine vinegar. Sea bass is a moist, snow-white, sensual fish; that'scaptured here.
The intense flavor that defines other dishes is missing with the wildmushroom flan ($26), a vegetarian entree adaptation of the egg-custarddessert. The mix of porcini, cremini, shiitake and portobello, skim milk andvarious herbs, sounds promising but creates an oddly off-putting, texturelessmass. A serving of black quinoa salad tossed with diced cucumber, onion andsherry vinegar helps somewhat, as do a porcini reduction and balsamicreduction, on the plate. One note: This dish is coming off the menu soon, tobe replaced by the Vegetarian Magic Carpet Ride, saffron-scented couscous,chickpeas, glazed carrots, onions, squash served with Indian roti bread andcucumber yogurt.
Best entree might be Michelle's Caribbean Bouillabaisse ($33), a massivebowl crowded with glorious, two-inch-diameter diver scallops; lobster claws;large shrimp; whole prawns; pieces of mixed fish, mostly salmon and sea bass;littleneck clams; big mussels, calamari - a real festival of seafood. Thebroth begins with an apple, haba?ero and bell pepper, red onion, garlic,saffron and smoked bacon sofrito, pureed in a blender with dry sherry and thenagain with lobster stock. It is heady primarily with saffron but gets theCaribbean kick from cilantro and fresh lime juice. This one is truly worth themoney.
The seduction ends with fantastic desserts (all $8). The whimsically namedchocolate Kit-Kat cake starts with a layer of crushed peanuts folded into it,then adds a layer of ganache, then a layer of chocolate mousse. It looks likea Kit-Kat but it's not, and it tastes much better. The creme brulee, a ramekinfilled with soft, sweet cream, gives extra joy with the scent and flavor ofrose water and Tahitian vanilla, a final salvo on the senses.