Finding Nirvana in New York City: Delicious Restaurant with a Heart

By John Lee, edited by Jim Luce. Photos by John Lee.

Fresh Sri Lankan shrimp were cooked to perfection

 

Recently I met up with Creole singer Mayer Morissette, Maggie Metayer, and Jim Luce to dine at Nirvana, on Lexington Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets.  What a treat on a cool autumn night!

 

Upon arrival, we were ushered upstairs to the main dining room by the friendly maître d’. Zarina Ahmed runs the first floor with grace and efficiency.

 

The ambiance is warm and inviting.  Cozy, dimly-lit, with exposed brick and an elegant red rose and candle, fine china and elegant glassware on crisp white table linen in a fine dining setting.

 

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The proud owners of Nirvana, Anil Amin and Pravin Mascarenhas.

Coming from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, I grew up with Indian cuisine.  Indian influences on Malay and Singaporean cuisine date back to the 1700’s.

I have also lived in neighboring Sri Lanka for two years, feasting on the emerald island’s daily rice and curries, similar to the cuisine of South India.

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Kneading naan bread for the tandor brick oven in the kitchen of Nirvana, I recall my Asian roots.  Coming from

Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, I grew up with Indian cuisine.   Indian influences on Malay and Singaporean cuisine date back to the 1700’s.  I have also lived in neighboring Sri Lanka for two years, feasting on the emerald island’s daily rice and curries, similar to the cuisine of South India.

Fresh Sri Lankan shrimp were cooked to perfection

My objective was to see how Nirvan’s fusion Indian food has been translated for the American palette.   Would I still recognize it?   I did.

Especially when the chef allowed me into his kitchen to experience the traditional way of making tandori dishes.

Nirvana is in a class by itself.   A cross between the simple Indian restaurants of Murray Hill (Lexington and 28th Street) and the East Village (Sixth Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues) and the high-end Indian restaurant for corporate executives around Rockefeller Center.

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Pre-dinner lull as the wait staff have a moment to catch their breath.

Nirvan’s food is a fusion between north and south Indian culinary traditions, featuring the best of both regions.   Much of it is specially cooked in custom-made tandor brick ovens, which I was shown in the kitchen.   At Nirvana, tandor ovens are fueled by gas instead of traditional charcoal often found in India.

Indian food uses many spices, herbs, and other vegetables.   Much of India is vegetarian.   Indian cuisine is characterized by a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques.   It varies from region to region, reflecting the varied demographics of its people.

Of course, food is about people, and the multi-ethnic staff of Nirvana make the culinary experience all the better through their attentive and spirited service.

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The owners, Pravin Mascarenhas and Anil Amin, set the perfect example of exceptional service.

The chief’s complimentary shrimp amuse-bouche were especially delicious.   These fresh Sri Lankan shrimp were cooked to perfection, succulent, drizzled with tamarind sauce and sprinkled with chopped coriander leaves.   The sweet and tangy sauce whipped up my appetite for more!

The appetizers included wafer-thin papadums, made from chick peas and lentils, are thin crispy Indian crackers or flatbread served with three condiments: pickled onion, mint chutney, and tamarind sauce.

Nirvan's  Delicious Papadum is served with an assortment of three delicious  condiments.
Nirvan’s delicious papadum is served with an assortment of three delicious condiments.

NirvaNirvan's special aloo paratha, a light whole wheat bread,  stuffed with seasoned mashes potatoes.
Nirvan’s special aloo paratha, a light whole wheat bread, stuffed with seasoned mashes potatoes.

Breads are an important staple to Indian cuisines.   The waiters served us two types of naans, regular naan, and garlic naan.

We were also served aloo paratha which is whole wheat bread stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes.   Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, the naan and paratha has a smokiness that only a tandor oven can achieve.

The shrimp  tadka was divine.   

The shrimp tadka was divine.   Beautifully presented, the Sri Lankan jumbo shrimp are cooked with garam masala with garlic and tamarind sauce.   Again, the chef exceeded my expectations with this seafood dish.

The shrimp have a grilled, smokey flavor from the tandor oven complemented with slight crunch of the bell peppers and onions.

Tomato  flavored Indian basmati rice was fluffy and infused with curry leaves,  saffron, and mustard seed.
Tomato flavored Indian basmati rice was fluffy and
infused with curry leaves, saffron, and mustard seed.

The raj kachori, a traditional Indian appetizer.
The raj kachori, a traditional Indian appetizer, with savory, lentils and
potatoes filled pastry pocket topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney.

Nirvana Restaurant blends their own spices.   The most frequently used spices in Indian cuisine are chili pepper, black pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, and garlic.

Popular spice mixes are garam masala which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly including cardamom, cinnamon, and clove.

My favorite Nirvana main course offerings include:

Gobi Manchurian. The spiced batter deep fried cauliflower florets then coated with the sautéed garlic, chili, tomato paste, scallions, and soy sauce are an example of fusion cuisine, as soy sauce is not indigenous to India. This reminded me of sweet and sour dish I grew up with!

Gobi Manchurian.   

Rosemary Malai Chicken. Tandor grilled pieces of chicken in rosemary yogurt marinade with barcardi chaas (Indian style butter milk).   The chicken pieces are grilled to perfection, juicy, and tender.

Rosemary Malai Chicken.

Lamb Chops. Chef’s special yogurt marinade lamb chops with Indian spices.   These perfectly marinated cutlets were grilled in the tandor oven to perfection; medium rare with a pink middle.

Lamb Chops.   

Methi Chicken. Fenugreek leaves and spice blend, slow-cooked to perfection.

Dhansak. Chicken cubes stewed in a purée of lentils, vegetables, and selected herbs.

Shrimp Tikka Masala. Tandori jumbo shrimp cooked in rich sauce made with yoghurt and homemade spices.

My favorite cocktail is their signature drink “Nirvana Sunrise.”   It makes me feel like I am at a beach resort in Goa.   Made with rum, mango juice, coconut, and grenadine (pomegranate juice), it truly tastes like nirvana.

My dining companion Jim is a beer drinker.   His favorite beer there was neither Kingfisher nor Golden Eagle, but rather the Indian-American beer “1947” brewed in Pennsylvania and named after Indi’s Independence year.   It is a premium lager.

We were served French Riesling and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines which complimented the rich Indian food, the fruity and floral notes of the wine brings out the complexity and richness of the Indian spices.

To end the meal, we had the pista malai kalfi, a wonderful homemade pistachios-flavored ice cream. And gulab jamunn, a popular dessert throughout India. gulab Jamun is made with milk, flour and chaas, infused in cardomon, rosewater and Saffron infused sugar syrup. The desserts just have the right touch of sweetness, complimenting with a glass of vintage port wine . The dessert port reflected Indi’s British colonial tradition.

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The staff of a restaurant can make-or-break it as much as the food.
The exceptional Nirvana staff, posing here with Jim Luce, score 100.

Not only are the food and staff a winning combination, but the restaurant believes in giving back to the community.   Owner Pravin Mascarenhas told me that he often hosts community functions and benefits in his restaurant and lounge for charities close to his heart.

“We are connected to the world, as such, we feel the need to give back to the world.   This is what it means for us to be human,” Pravin told me.   Nirvan’s heart beats pure.

My quest in exploring the cuisine of Nirvana in New York City was to see if it resembled anything I knew from my Asian childhood.   In all honesty, I can say it was even better than I remembered.

By the way, the cost is entirely reasonable.   If you would like to reach Nirvana yourself, take a cab to Third Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets in New York City.

Signature  cocktail Nirvana Sunrise is made with rum, mango juice, coconut, and  grenadine.
Signature cocktail Nirvana Sunrise is made with rum, mango juice, coconut, and grenadine.

Nirvana Restaurant & Lounge is located at 346 Lexington Avenue, between 39th and 40th Streets, in New York City.   For reservations, call (212) 983-0000.   Tell them John Lee recommended you go!

Photos by John Lee.  Originally published in The Daily Kos, Novermber 28, 2009.

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John Lee
John Lee served as a Global Officer of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org) in Sri Lanka for three years following the 2004 Tsunami. He is Vice President of the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org) and serves as Lifestyle Editor of The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness. He has a masters degree in gemology and is an accomplished photographer.

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