Stepping into Nirvana (4308 Magazine St., 504-894-9797; www.insidenirvana.com) is like waking up in India. Indian music plays while three televisions show Indian street food, tours and Bollywood dancing or Indian movie clips. The paintings, fabrics, chairs and light fixtures are all from India, and the food is made according to tradition from 5,000-year-old recipes.
"We try to be traditional," owner Anjay Keswani says. "We're trying to appeal to everyone from A-Z and the food we make is like what you'd find at the restaurants in India."
The buffet offers a variety of dishes to try. Keswani says the saag paneer, similar to creamed spinach, and naan, similar to pita bread, are gateway dishes, he says, and Indian food aficionados flock to the buffet for options like dal makhani, a seven-lentil soup. The dinner menu is full of family-style dishes spiced with traditional garam masala blend: cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and garlic.
"My dad always wanted to bring the culture of India to New Orleans through food," Keswani says. "Eating crosses all kinds of boundaries."
Mango lassi is a yogurt-based mango smoothie and consistently is Nirvana's most popular offering.
"And in India, to have a mango lassi on a hot day is so good," Keswani says. "I've been to India where the guy on the street is just grinding the sugarcane over a big block of ice and it just falls on the ice and into a cup, and then you drink it and you just feel so good."
Another popular item is the Flag of India, featuring horizontal rows of butter chicken, malai kebab and saag paneer which recreate the saf- fron, white and green stripes of India's national flag.
All Nirvana appetizers are based on Indian street fare. From rugda pati (potato cakes topped with curried garbanzo beans and cucumber-mint yogurt sauce), to samosas (savory fried hand pies filled with peas and potatoes), both served with chutneys, to pakoras (fish, vegetables, shrimp or chicken, battered and lightly fried).
"To eat here and then to go to India, the culture shock will be huge, but the food shock won't," Keswani says.
Keswani is eager to talk about his newest menu items: skillet-grilled redfish served with tamarind, mint and mango chutneys; bullet naan, which is naan topped with cilantro, chilies and Parmesan; and yellow dahl. Another addition, mutton rara — a dish of ground and cubed lamb, peas and eggs — is accompanied by a folk tale. According to legend, it was first made by a young man whose girlfriend was trapped by a witch named Rara. He knew the witch loved lamb, so he made her the best lamb dish he could. The witch grew powerless after eating it, and her stupor allowed him to rescue his girlfriend.
"Indian food is really all about love," Keswani says. "There are a lot of stories like that."