For the past few years, Mantra Bistro has gained significant buzz as one of the best Indian restaurants in the city. Locals have raved about its Northern Indian cuisine which is composed of standard fare but well executed. The local Indian community frequents the place, and the Indian Ambassador to the Philippines says that for him it’s the best Indian joint in town. Fans sing the kulfi's praises, and rave about the vegetable kebab. There’s the tandoori, the green peas tikki, paneer tikka, and mutton seekh kebab—served with a piquant yogurt and mint dressing. There’s the oven-baked shrimp curry biryani, wrapped in a delectable smokiness and a kick of heat that will make you blush. It’s all very fuss-free and confidently cooked comfort food.
But when its owner Ranjit Chimni opened shop in 2016, it was really the only option he had left. At that time, Ranjit was an expat in Manila, working for a BPO company that plucked him from Delhi and sent him to the Philippines in 2008. “Once I stayed here, there was no going back. I worked with them [in the Philippines] for six and a half years and quit in 2016,” says Ranjit, 47. Despite his imposing height—well over six feet—and his serious and quiet demeanor, everything warms up when he starts sharing details about himself. He says the BPO wanted him back in India then—and he would have been happy to return—but he had already started entertaining the thought of opening a restaurant in Manila. “But I hadn’t done my homework completely,” he recalls. When the time came closer to his supposed departure, he and the company could never agree on the date: they wanted him back in India earlier, and Ranjit wanted three more months in the Philippines so his son could finish the school term. The BPO couldn’t be convinced. “So I said, then, okay, that means I quit.”
Upset that the company he worked with for roughly a decade wouldn’t grant him the small favor of time, Ranjit decided to start the restaurant he had always thought about. But with no background in the food and beverage industry, he harked back to what he knew best: his own culture and the food he grew up with. “In India, it would be considered very run-of-the-mill kind of Indian food,” he says of his menu, “which you’ll find available in most Indian restaurants. I didn’t want to experiment too much. I figured if I just do what I know best and do it well, it should be good.”
It’s a little easy to miss Mantra Bistro. Tucked behind a side street in Legazpi, Makati, the joint is not really screaming for attention. There’s a bit of a DIY feel to its interiors, with a few colorful elements that bring touches of the Indian culture into the space. It's pretty tasteful, but it's clear the food is what people come back for.
To hear Ranjit say it, he has always been passionate about food. “I always wanted to do my own thing in the kitchen. I always wanted to do hotel and restaurant management, but never got around to it.”
Until it was time. Ranjit didn’t tell his parents immediately about making a career shift, aware they might not understand its nature. “I come from a very conservative family,” he says, the seriousness in his demeanor enhanced only by his business attire, in a blending of earth tones that complement his skin color. “When I say conservative, I mean risk-averse, you know? Most of my family is from the defense services background. When I say risk-averse, nobody really goes to become an entrepreneur. Nobody really does their own thing.”
Ranjit’s parents lived in Assam, a remote eastern part of India, where his father worked at a tea plantation. The closest school was around three hours away from their home so his folks had no choice but to send him and his two siblings away to boarding school. “I spent most of my life in boarding school,” says Ranjit. “So I’ve been fairly independent all my life.”
While his venture into food took a slow but steady ascent, he’s arrived at a menu that boasts of the complexity and flavors that someone who grew up with home-cooked Indian food will truly appreciate. The Mantra tandoori, for example, is cooked over charcoal in a clay tandoor oven, and his variety of curries are made by chefs who are all from India. “When you see these [Indian chefs] do the curry and they taste it,” says Ranjit, “they already know out of the 15 spices exactly what is missing.”
Ranjit is almost always in the restaurant, shuffling about, busy keeping things together. When he’s not receiving supplies at the door, he’s managing the staff, answering emails, and grabbing lunch in between. He is hands-on even in the kitchen, and sometimes talks to guests--some of whom he has become familiar with. There’s something admirable about someone like Ranjit, a foreigner independently and quietly trying to succeed in Manila’s highly competitive food scene in Manila. If there is an indication that business has been good, he has now extended the bistro to include the Tapas Bar by Mantra. Looking back, he says, he is glad that circumstances have implored him to stay and his BPO company never granted him the extension he was asking for. Otherwise, “I would be sitting in India right now,” says Ranjit, “doing the job I hated.”
Photographs by RG Medestomas