by Sam Gugino
The term “bistro” is said to have come to France during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1814 when Russian soldiers desiring quick service would shout “bystro.” And while The Oxford Companion to Food suggests that the term is “elastic,” I doubt that its authors meant stretching all the way to India. Nevertheless, we have Nirvana Indian Bistro in Lafayette Hill, which took over a space on Germantown Pike previously occupied by the Lucky Dog Saloon, which ran out of good fortune about a year ago.
Don’t expect coquilles St. Jacques, cassoulet, or coq au vin. Or anything exactly heavenly, for that matter. But you can get some decent Indian food at Nirvana. Or so it would seem from the steady stream of takeout orders being filled early one Saturday evening.
An interior of simple tables, ceiling fans, plain wooden floors and minimal decoration give you an indication of the building’s last iteration. There are no flashing Budweiser signs, thankfully, and the tables have tablecloths and cloth napkins. A few stars for that, though it would be nice not to have to look at the empty buffet stations. (Buffets are offered daily at lunch.)
Nirvana’s menu is pretty standard Indian fare with a few twists here and there. In gobi manchurian our old friend cauliflower is, on this occasion, deep-fried. However, its crispness gets soddened by a coating of chile, garlic and soy sauce. Though it tasted like a respectable barbecue sauce, it should have been on the side. Roasted chickpea salad was a crisp and fresh mélange of greens and other vegetables garnished with a sprinkling of chickpeas, which didn’t deserve star billing. The tasteless creamy dressing should have been axed from the show.
The food improved with the entrees, beginning with the tandoori chicken, which made a grand entrance on a sizzling hot plate. The on-the-bone chicken pieces were juicy and flavorful and the accompanying tomato-cream sauce laced with cumin and coriander was excellent.
Goat curry was toothsome, though dealing with the bones (some of which were quite small) was tricky. So was avoiding the whole cardamom pods in the sauce.
The menu boasts that the cottage cheese or paneer, which appears in several dishes, is homemade. I’ve tasted paneer elsewhere and this version still leaves me unconvinced of its raison d’être. However, the spinach that came with the paneer in the saag paneer was a cut above any steakhouse creamed spinach. I can’t recommend any of three breads I tried.
As for desserts, the Ganges parted and through the aperture came the best (and maybe the only) Indian dessert I’ve ever had—orange-flavored ice cream stuffed into a hollowed out orange and sliced into wedges. Carrot pudding, which tasted more like sweet potato pudding, wasn’t remarkable on its own. But when alternated with the ice cream, the two made a satisfying duet.
Service was quite friendly and efficient, though this trend of requiring customers stuff their own doggie bags has got to stop.
Nirvana, 417 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill, 484-532-7949, www.nirvanabistropa.com, reservations and credit cards accepted.
Lunch: Monday – Friday, 11:30 am – 2 pm; Saturday & Sunday: 12 – 2 pm
Dinner: Sunday – Thursday, 5 – 9:30 pm; Friday & Saturday, 5 – 10 pm
Appetizers, $5-8. Entrees, $11-22.
Many people (including restaurant critics) think beer is the obvious beverage with Indian cooking. That’s fine, but limiting. Sparkling wine with spicy food, however, is perfect. The bracing acidity and bubbles help to refresh a palate that can be overcome with heavy seasoning and rich sauces. And the lower alcohol in sparkling wines are less likely to fan the flames of chile fire.
But don’t waste your money on expensive bubbly. Instead, try the Spanish sparkling wine called Cava. Cavas are typically priced under $20 and often under $15, which makes them great bargains. Perhaps the best example (in Pennsylvania, at least) is Jaume Serra Cristalino Serra Brut (Code: 6501, on sale for $9.99). I’ve impressed more than a few friends with this tasty sparkler, which has just the right balance of fruit and freshness.
Albet i Noya Brut Reserva NV (Code: 22840, $19.99) is a more refined (some would say austere) Cava with notable minerality. For heartier dishes like that goat curry, consider Vallformosa Origen Rose Brut Non Vintage (Code: 43631; $21.99), which is riper and richer than the other two Cavas.