Finding Bliss
[from December 2004 issue]

According to Merriam-Webster's, nirvana is the final bliss that transforms suffering. According to rockers, Nirvana is the late Kurt Cobain's band. According to me, Nirvana is the restaurant of choice in DC whenever I crave heavenly food---food so unusual and so invested with flavors, textures and aromas that it inspires. Something else to remember about Nirvana. While it's an Indian eatery, chances are it provides an experience you've likely never encountered: a mix of Gujarati and South Indian (and several North Indian) vegetarian dishes. And if you are an omnivore, don't shy away because you fear an overdose of tasteless stews, overcooked veggies, and a surfeit of uninspired yogurt fare. You are in for a big surprise. First off, don't hesitate to ask questions. Not only will many of the dishes sound--and be--unfamiliar, but also Gujarati cooking is from a region in India seldom explored in American-Indian kitchens. Indeed, you won't find the conventional tandoori dishes and North Indian curries you most often encounter. And many dishes may offer more heat than you might expect. Take the appetizer Mara Mari, which is a pair of long, hot chilies stuffed with shredded coconut and spices, then wrapped in a chickpea flour batter and deep-fried. Sure the menu says "hot peppers" but that doesn't convey the incendiary intensity of this duo. Fearful that we were too unsuspecting, the hostess--and as it turns out, the principal cook, the source of the recipes, and, I daresay, one of the owners--explained that these were best dipped in the sweetish tamarind chutney alongside. That has the benefit of not only tempering the fire but also of offering a sweet-ish counterpoint. Your best bet is to select the appetizer platter, the obvious way to sample a bit of many unusual tidbits, so that on your return visit, you can zero in on a favorite or two; mine will always be the mara mari. Samples include the steamed, cooked chickpea flour cakes, cut into small squares and as squishy as a sponge; the aloo tikki, which are potato patties filled with green peas and coconut, and probably my favorite; the kandhvi, a pinwheel of chickpea flour with a slippery texture; and the khasta kachori, which has a thin bread-like crust and a robust filling. All these are accompanied by the tamarind and coriander chutneys. Deciding on a main course proves slightly more challenging, since some dishes are clearly South Indian--the dosas, uttapam, masala, and idli--and at least to many, relatively familiar. It's the Gujarati fare, however, that truly beckons. The cook/hostess explains that undhio, a slow-simmered bounty of seasonal veggies is one, but we look instead to the bharva subji, a sublime combo of potatoes and peppers stuffed with a sweet-tart and crumbly mixture that surely includes ground coconut and sesame seeds, plus more. The aggregation of flavors and textures is so unexpected that you may not grasp what you are eating, And then the flavor explosion sets in--not hot, but elusive tastes that defy simple definition. That's the kind of cooking I like--multiple flavors intermixed. Other dishes do sound familiar: the aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry), dal makhani and tarka dal, both lentil dishes that turn up regularly on local menus. And the Goan vindaloo, a favorite in many restaurants for those who dream of fiery lamb, goat or chicken curries, and love that sour/hot mixture of a vindaloo. But here's it's vegetarian, and well, here, of course, you can't eat meat anyway. As extra treats, the breads are so different from the usual tandoori-cooked rotis that you'll be intrigued: flat, whole-wheat and flavorful, and either deep-fried or griddle-cooked. The mango lassi is as thick and rich as the best kind of milkshake, and the desserts, while few in number, rate a second glance. The gulab jamun are delicate balls, slightly larger than marbles and served hot in a hot syrup. That's a standard dessert elsewhere, but the gugra are not; these resemble a very sophisticated fig bar, but of course, they are much more complex and flavor-intense.

All in all, Nirvana, truly celestial.

Nirvana, 1810 K St., NW; tel., 223-5043. Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-3pm, Sat., 12noon-3pm; dinner, Mon-Thu., 5-9 pm, Fri., Sat., 5-10pm. Entrée prices: $7.95-$9.95. Major credit cards accepted. For more info, visit target=_top> Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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