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Passage to India 

South Mecklenburg palates get a tasty ride

The aromas and the anticipated tastes of well-spiced Indian food lead some Western diners (like me) into forays of excess. Eating Indian is not something to do with proprietary friends -- ones who shield plates from an intruding fork. No, Indian food is intended as food frenzy -- and it doesn't hurt to take a heat-seeker, or a vindaloo lover, either. Just swooping up the last bit of gravy with a piece of deliciously warm roti initiates poetic reverie. Aromas consume: I am undone.

This doesn't happen at all Indian restaurants, just good ones like Café Nirvana: Indian Fusion. This restaurant, tucked away in a recently constructed shopping center on the southern edge of Mecklenburg County, opened in July of 2007. Café Nirvana's proprietors Thiru and Charmaine Govender clearly planned on a more trendy "fusion" eatery when selecting the vibrant yellow and green color scheme: not a Rajasthani mask on site. The bar off the right of the entrance is a cozy place to wait for a table or watch a sporting event. Booths recline in muted shades of red with extra large tables, a necessity for a great Indian sharable spread. Bustling bonhomous servers clad in black T-shirts race to offer newly seated patrons pappadums (lentil chips) and dipping sauces.

What this kitchen produces is Indian dishes -- primarily Northern, Southern, and Goan (western coastal India) -- interpreted and reinvented at times by Charmaine Govender and Chef Muthu. In fact, the whole idea of Nirvana is about reinvention. After moving to Charlotte from New Jersey a few years ago, Govender chose not to remain in primary education, but instead open an Indian restaurant at her 13-year-old daughter's urging. "I wanted to do something with my mother who came with us," Govender says. They chose the Ballantyne area since they lived there and were familiar with the Indian ex-pat community.

Govender says Chef Muthu, an Indian native, came to Nirvana after cooking in the Charlotte area for a number of years and in Dubai. She also has two other chefs: one specializing in Southern Indian dishes, one in tandoor (clay oven).

Govender is not from India. She is ethnically Indian but is a native of South Africa, growing up in Johannesburg. Those familiar with South African cuisine know the influence India cuisine wields; after all, Mrs. Balls Chutney is the leading condiment, and bunny chow -- bread scooped out and filled with curry -- a favorite snack. The Indian population in South Africa is significant and many world-renowned Indians have lived there. The plight of Indian sugar cane workers (circa 1900) in South Africa led Gandhi, an attorney, to live in South Africa for 21 years.

But Govender has opted to leave any South African spellings off her menu (it's samosa, not somoosa here). A quick glance of the menu, which bears English descriptions, reveals a familiar multitude of Indian favorites such as kormas, vindaloos, dosas and biriyani. While some dishes are more substantial than others, Govender intends for you to order from around the menu -- like a whirlwind passage through India. For the less-intrepid souls, there is of course, the bellwether: the ever-present chicken tikka masala. I like to order this, though, to see just how traditional or innovative the kitchen wants to go. Nirvana's CTM showed remarkable creaminess.

Don't fear heat. The fire in Govender's dishes is warm and inviting -- nothing that a mango lassi can't cure. In fact, even curries at an intermediate heat level were mediated by the sweet smoothness of Evolution, a nine-grape blend from Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon. But we didn't order beyond that level either.

The crispy pakoras and samosas arrived in an appealing, but unfussy, presentation and were greeted by eager, grabby hands. After the starters, entrees were brought out in whatever-the-kitchen-had-ready order (perhaps due to lack of coordination by the three chefs?). Simple twists reawaken some choices, as featured in the tender lemony grilled lamb with a hint of ginger. Other offerings are "fusion": tandoor lamb chops with mint potatoes, and roasted salmon with curried cabbage.

Curry hounds can relish in the pleasures of one Goan specialty: a covey of shrimp under a flavor shower of spicy pepper and coconut. The bread, so important to the texture of a satisfying Indian feast, does not disappoint. By the time the yardstick-length dosa, delicately wrapped around a potato interior appeared, we were at the outer limits of satisfied. But even then, the must-try dessert is the not-too-sweet apricot bread pudding: dense and guilt-inducing. Order more than one since one can be easily inhaled.

The staff at Nirvana is programmed to coach the innocent, but with a growing Indian ex-pat community in Charlotte and the growing number of Indian, even Indian fusion, restaurants, this cuisine is no longer a fringe phenomenon -- even if Nirvana's location may be.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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