There is a rationale stating that the more equatorial the region, the spicier its cuisine. This is backed by the reasoning that hot foods make people perspire, thereby cooling them off. I have always scratched my head at this, not because it’s unreasonable but because well-spiced foods also work as an elixir to damp, cold winter nights. A complex stew warms the belly and soul in ways that a single protein and two compartmentalized sides never will. Perhaps this is why it’s winter, and not summer, that triggers my desire for Indian food and the vivid tapestry of seasonings that accompany it.
While what I know about curry’s history could be inscribed on the backside of a cardamom pod, I do know that the word itself is little more than a blanket statement, offering about as much definition of a dish as the word “fish” does to all the creatures that swim in the sea. “Curry” is a Westernized approximation of the word kuri which simply means sauce. But essential to this sauce is the inclusion of curry powder, yet another generalized term for a seemingly infinite variation of custom spice blends which can feature dozens of ingredients in varying proportions.
Typical ingredients essential to the core of an authentic curry powder include, but are not limited to, fresh or dried curry leaves, cardamom, chilies, clove, coriander, cumin, tamarind and turmeric. For true hand-blended curries, perhaps the only definitive thing that can be said about them is that no two are exactly alike. Or, as a native of India might put it, “My mother’s is the best.”
New Orleans, frankly, doesn’t have a wide range of restaurants in this genre. But one newcomer to the corner of Carrollton Avenue and Oak Street is a welcome addition. Curry Corner is an offshoot of the nearby Indian fusion restaurant Sara’s. But unlike Sara’s, which is a full-service restaurant showcasing a range of national influences, Curry Corner is a simpler affair, a lunch counter offering a short and stripped-down menu of home-style Indian staples, making it a more affordable and casual place to eat. Students and vegetarians take note.
A short menu of four rotating mains dishes may be paired with a choice of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian sides. Typical main dishes include Chicken Masala, Red Curry Chicken or Rogan Josh Lamb. Vegetarian sides include Saag Paneer, Chole and curried vegetables.
The Chicken Masala is fragrant and especially redolent of clove. The Chole, garbanzo beans cooked in a tamarind sauce, have a honeyed sweetness to them along with the distinctive sour notes of tamarind. The Saag Paneer was a bit bland, but the curried vegetables add enough complexity to the greens to make them a stand-alone dish. Paired with the included basmati rice, this is a comforting place to fill up on a budget. Round out the meal with a crisp Kingfisher beer from the cooler in the back, which offers a range of tempting cold drinks. Tamarind soda or coconut juice are also good complements to the meal. While there, be sure to take a look around the selection of Indian groceries and dry goods, great for stocking up on interesting and hard-to-find pantry items. Baked desserts featuring nuts and honey are available as well.
Sara’s in the Riverbend neighborhood is Curry Corner’s dolled-up sister, incorporating a far broader range of influences into its menu. The dining room is pleasant and the service is quite good. Samosas, a staple Indian item, come plated on a bed of mesclun and served alongside a ramekin of sour tamarind sauce. The pastry is flaky and the extravagantly spiced vegetables inside really pop when dipped in the sauce. If you’re craving soup, their Lemongrass Crab Bisque is almost a meal in itself. The coconut cream broth is super-rich, serving as an almost three-dimensional canvas for the lemongrass and spices. The coconut is also a natural complement to the crabmeat.
Entrées cross national boundaries at will. But for Indian fare, the Shrimp Vindaloo is a safe bet. The large, heads-on shrimp are deveined and arranged just so around a mound of basmati rice, with a creamy red sauce ladled about. Other nice choices include Red Thai Chicken and Coconut Shrimp, both based on variations of curry spice mixtures. Try the Indian Rice Pudding for dessert, which is suffused with fragrant cardamom, one of my favorite spices.
For Uptowners, Nirvana serves as the de facto Indian destination in the city. The Keswani family who owns it is also owns Metairie’s de facto Indian destination, Taj Mahal. Everything at Nirvana is done in-house. The tandoori oven does wonderful things to chicken, and even the most humble of foods becomes something special here. Their many types of bread, always hot when they arrive at the table, can be a meal just in themselves. The Lasuni Naan is seasoned with caramelized garlic and utterly delicious. Chewy in some places, crispy in others, the complex terrain of just a single round of the stuff epitomizes its homemade nature. The Aloo Paratha comes stuffed with potatoes – a filling treat. With the breads priced between two and three dollars, they’re a good deal.
For starters, I’d recommend the Chat Papri, a mix of diced potatoes and chickpeas seasoned with lime and cilantro, punched up with a touch of chili pepper. Scooped up with the accompanying crispy wafers, this is (forgive me but it fits) akin to an Indian salsa.
Samosas come two to an order, fried and stuffed with heavily seasoned potatoes and peas. A pass through the accompanying tamarind sauce rounds out the flavor. The Goan Shrimp comes bathed in a warm red curry studded with almonds which add flavor and textural contrast. Nirvana’s Saag Paneer is my favorite in the city.
The creamy blend of spinach and mild white cheese is pure comfort food. Spooned over rice, it makes for a delicious meal in itself. But this is just one of Nirvana’s many great vegetarian offerings. Other good ones are the Chole and the Alu Gobi, a blend of cauliflower and potatoes tossed in a blend of diverse seasonings. For dessert, try the Kulfi, an Indian-style ice cream. The lunch buffet is a real deal as well and its popularity can draw a big crowd.