About a month ago, JL, XJS, and I sat down to an exploration of Sri Lankan food at Nirvana Cafe & Bar, in Gramercy. I'd tried some of this restaurant's offerings at the Choice Eats event, and theirs had been among my favorite plates. I had told myself I would go to check it out ever since.
At first I was worried. Shortly after we sat down this plate of lentil or chickpea crackers was set down in front of us, but boy were they bad. The pappadum were bendy and tough, not at all crisp like they should have been. My guess is that they had sat out for a while, and with the day's incredible humidity, had soaked up moisture and turned sodden.
Our mellow server was eager to help us make the right choices though, so under his direction we dug into an incredible lamprais with lamb: a Dutch-influenced packet of rice, marinated lamb, caramelized eggplant, sweet, spicy onion relish, pieces of ash plantain, a fried hard-boiled egg, and a salty fried fish ball wrapped in a banana leaf. Once mixed together, the dish was sensational: the rice was tender and aromatic and infused with beef broth, shrimp paste, and all the flavors of the other components. Despite how oily it was, I kept going back for more.
We also got the string hopper kottu, "shredded, steamed rice noodles sautéed with vegetables and egg served with curry sauce." This was okay but a little bland, and only when I added hot sauce from the small dish the server brought over did I find it tastier. The chicken pieces dispersed throughout were on the dry side and didn't seem well marinated. At Choice Eats I had tried their kottu roti (the same dish as above but made with pieces of roti) and liked it a lot, but somehow this was far less interesting.
I was excited for the hoppers, bowl-shaped crepes made from creamed wheat and served with a chili relish and a curry (your choice; we picked vegetable). One of the hoppers came with an egg dropped in the bottom, like a Sri Lankan version of egg in the basket; they had a tender texture and reminded me of a cross between the rava masala dosai and the uppadam I'd eaten at Chennai Garden. The vegetable curry that came with it wasn't notable, so I just ended up eating pieces of the salty, buttery hoppers alone. Smearing them with the tangy chili relish kicked them up to another level, and since there were four in an order, there was enough for everyone and then some.
Finally, for dessert we shared an order of wattalapan, "baked mousse prepared with brown palm sugar (jaggery) and cardamom." Unlike what the description had led me to believe, the wattalapan was more like a stiff custard or a flan, with a solid, jellied texture and cashews studded over its surface. It was pleasant and not too sweet but it wasn't something I'd crave; I was glad I tried it though.
Having access to so many different cuisines is part of what I love so much about New York City. Though the dishes at Nirvana were a little uneven, and though I don't have anything to compare it to, I thought it was pretty good overall and was really happy about being able to taste so many different things. The next time I'm looking for something unusual to eat, I just might go back to try the rest.