Indian food in Seattle doesn’t normally conjure up notions of fine dining and elegance.
For the most part, it’s a pretty standard assortment of palak paneer and tandoori chicken with fairly consistent flavors of Punjabi food, appropriately Americanized.
As someone who grew up mostly eating South Indian food, I often find myself commenting to my friends that they are missing out on a huge amount of cuisine that India has to offer.
But that’s all about to change when Nirmal’s opens later this fall in Pioneer Square.
Nirmal Monteiro has been chef at restaurants in India, Japan, Iraq and elsewhere, and now he’s bringing his 30 years of experience and global point-of-view to the taste buds of the Pacific Northwest.
He’s teamed up with Gita and Oliver Bangera, longtime residents of the area, but first time restaurateurs, who have known Monteiro for years and have convinced him to join them in this new venture.
I had the opportunity to eat my way through a private dinner hosted by the Bangeras and featuring the food forthcoming at Nirmal’s.
It’s particularly fitting to have someone of Monteiro’s caliber and background opening a restaurant in Seattle — a place where seafood is revered. Monteiro is from Goa and his cooking draws on many of the flavors of the coastal regions of India. His time in Japan further honed his ability to make any seafood sing on the plate.
I went into the dinner without many expectations — I haven’t had much in the way of Indian coastal cooking. But nearly every single dish, from the pakoras with creamy coconut chutney to the squash soup with Indian spices to the bell pepper stuffed with smoked eggplant was a hit.
While these dishes were outstanding, the crab spiced with tamarind and mustard seeds was the highlight. The chef had infused every bite with flavor. The dish had rustic charm, (we ate it with our hands) but the flavors of a five-star experience.
The Bangeras brought each of us a bowl of warm water with lemon to rinse off our hands, adding to the authentic experience of dining in a high-end restaurant in India.
I was reluctant to wash up, hoping that another plate of crab might appear. Instead we continued on through a menu of food that celebrated vegetables and seafood, including a whole pomfret fish wrapped in banana leaves, and okra prepared with a flavorful cashew-based “cream” sauce.
I don’t eat meat except seafood, so the menu for the evening was appropriately tailored for my dietary restrictions, but word is that there will be a number of specialty meat dishes on the restaurant menu.
We finished the meal with chikoo ice cream — refreshing but not overly sweet. The ice cream struck the same balance as the rest of the meal — clearly Indian and focused on letting the unique ingredient do most of the work.
The meal was a feast for every sense. For the first time in Seattle, I believe we will have an Indian restaurant that truly celebrates the ingredients and provides diners with a culinary adventure.
When Nirmal’s opens (still waiting on a hard opening date) the menu will focus on thalis — a traditional style of serving food in India that involves small bowls of many different dishes — and on a mix of vegetarian and non vegetarian options. Lunch will bring sandwiches with Indian inspired fillings.
Of course, food alone does not make a restaurant worthy of the “fine dining” label. That’s where the Bangeras’ attention to detail comes into play. They are building out a 4,300 square foot space in Pioneer Square with exposed brick and beautiful tables that will seat 90 diners. The long bench on the side of the space with tasteful lighting is classic Seattle restaurant. It will hopefully feel comfortable enough for a business lunch but interesting enough for a date night in Pioneer Square.
Fine Indian dining in Seattle comes with a little baggage, so soon after the failure of the much anticipated Shanik.
But perhaps this is where the Bangeras have an advantage — they have lived here for 15 years and know their customer base. They are not basing their model solely on the growing numbers of Indians working in South Lake Union, but rather hope to be a place for the established scene of adventurous eaters in Seattle — and the many people who have craved more variety and authenticity in local options for Indian cuisine.
Whether there are enough of us who fall in either category to make the restaurant a success remains to be seen. But hearing the Bangeras talk passionately about their new endeavor, it’s not about fusion and radicalizing Indian food. Rather it is an approach that centers on great ingredients and flavors from parts of India that usually don’t get to show off in U.S. restaurants.
I’m hopeful that it will take Pioneer Square one step closer to reflecting the authenticity and originality of the global communities that make Seattle such a great place to call home.