I recently heard about another Sri Lankan restaurant: Bownie, a Jaffna joint in Flushing. Definitely next on the culinary adventure list. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before!
I did visit Nirvana recently—twice, actually. The first time, I met a friend there for lunch. He and I had previously been to Sigiri for lunch. They don’t have a buffet—you have to order off the menu, which both he and I like anyway. Nirvana, on the other hand, had a buffet. Always game for a bargain, we both tried it. They had mackerel curry, which I avoided and he tried (and didn’t like); the Sri Lankan favorite, mutton curry (okay, but not really spicy enough); a saffron-tinged rice (nice, but a bit oily); and assorted vegetables. It was passable, but not really good. I find that buffets cater to the lowest common denominator, spice-wise. We left somewhat disappointed, but I resolved to give them another chance for dinner.
I made the trek down for dinner a few weeks later, to meet up with a group of young Sri Lankan-American professionals I’ve gotten to know. We try to get together every couple of months for dinner, and Sigiri is our usual haunt.
This time, tempted by the idea of more space for our ever-growing numbers, we had opted for Nirvana. The restaurant is a lot bigger than Sigiri; there were maybe eight of us, and we were the only people there for dinner at 8 on a Sunday night. I arrived about half an hour late (Sri Lankan standard time?) and when I got there, my friends were munching on fried cutlets, spring rolls, and other “short eats.” Nirvana, like Sigiri, is BYOB, and one of our party had gone to the nearby Trader Joe’s to pick up some Chardonnay.
As I had thought, Nirvana’s dinner outshone its lunch. We ordered hoppers, and the egg versions were pleasantly runny; the plain ones hit just the right note between crispness and sponginess. (Hoppers are similar to crepes, but thicker; they’re cooked in gently curved pans, and often served with spicy sambol made from ground coconut pounded with chilies.)
More than one person also named the fish curry a favorite. I don’t know what kind of fish it was, but I don’t usually like fish curry, and I too found myself going back for seconds. If I were to go back to Nirvana, I’d definitely get this again.
And another one of us ordered the ambu thiyal. I’d never had it before, and wasn’t a fan, but it made her look nostalgic (she spent much of her childhood in Sri Lanka). “Isn’t it good?” she said, and I didn’t have the heart to disagree. (Another kind of fish in a combination of spices I’d never tasted.) I contented myself with the kotthu roti (chopped roti stir-fried with vegetables and chicken—really street food, but shows up on the menu at Sigiri too), string hoppers, hoppers, and sambol.
As we left, we compared notes and pitted Sigiri against Nirvana. Sigiri is actually more convenient for me than Nirvana; the space is smaller, but the food is noticeably better. Everyone else seemed to agree: while the people at Nirvana were nice, the space appealing and the service pleasant, Sigiri clearly won.
In other Sri Lankan foodie news…. Awhile back, Jaffna native Thiru Kumar, who runs a Dosa Cart on the south side of Washington Square Park, near NYU, won the Vendy Awards. He makes the best street food in the city. He is awesome. He will load you down with so much food you can hit a blissful near-coma state for only $5. Belated congratulations to him! If you have never been to his cart: Go—go—go! He’s only there on weekdays, from about 11 to about 3. So worth it. If you don’t believe me, watch him cook.
I should note that I am writing this from what I consider the gold standard of Sri Lankan cooking: my parents’ house. Happy Thanksgiving.