By Laura Shunk
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If it weren't for almost perpetual civil war, Sri Lanka would be a model of ethnic and religious diversity. Four of the world's chief faithsIslam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianitylive side-by-side on the teardrop-shaped island once known as Ceylon. The colonial history is a patchwork, too, with the island controlled successively by Portuguese, Dutch, and English interests prior to independence in 1948. Sri Lanka is also steepedlike its famous teain legend: Adam's Peak boasts a giant footprint on top, which Christian pilgrims claim is where Adam landed when he was flung to earth from the Garden of Eden. Buddhists assert it's the footprint of Buddha.
Not long ago, getting good Sri Lankan food required a pilgrimage, too. Staten Island's Victory Boulevard hosts several small cafés anchored by a mosque, and there's a slightly more ambitious Sri Lankan eatery in a remote Hindu neighborhood in Flushing. But now a full-blown Sri Lankan restaurant has appeared near Gramercy Park, like a sign from the deity (or deities). The name, Nirvana, as well as the presence of pork and a predilection for vegetarian dishes, should tip you to its Buddhist leanings. Nevertheless, any Sri Lankan restaurant in New York must produce food to please the followers of all four religions, and Nirvana is no exception.
There's no better introduction to this fascinating cuisine than hoppers. These flatbreads cook up fluffy and rice-tasting, but instead of lying prone, they've been rendered bowl-shaped by a cheni chatti ("Chinese pan"). Hoppers come in fours, and every fourth one has a wiggly, sunnyside-up egg annealed to the bottom. Asking why is useless: Just tear off pieces of the flatbread and let the yolk flow where it may. At Nirvana, hoppers come with your choice of currychicken, lamb, beef, fish, or vegetable. The best complement is the vegetable curry ($10), a mild coconut-laced mélange. While both curry and hoppers tend to be bland, the red paste that comes alongside is not. Known as lunumiris, it imparts a haunting oniony flavor, searing your throat as it slides stomach-ward.
Nirvana's best main courses are similarly anchored by an exotic starch. Pittu arrives like an encoded message from outer spacea perfect white cylinder compacted of beaten rice and shredded coconut, which begins to crumble and flake as it lands on your table. As with the hoppers, you're given a choice of curries to go with it (most $14), along with a gravy boat of sauce and a bright orange relish called katta sambol. This condiment originated with the Indonesian field hands who were brought by the Dutch to work Ceylon's spice plantations in the 18th century. Other strange and singular Sri Lankan starches include coconut roti (a brittle flatbread), string hoppers (rice-noodle patties), and kottu roti (a stir-fry of ripped flatbread).
The curries that come with these starchesalso available with plain white riceconstitute meek, meat-only compositions in varying shades of brown. The exception occurs when the cook decides to make a "black curry" of porkand don't miss it if he does. This signature Sinhalese recipe toasts the spices darkly before grinding them, resulting in a flavor both brooding and complex. And the pork is fatty enough to make the curry glisten in the reflected light of the dining room's wide-screen TVwhich paradoxically shows travel footage of Hawaii and Jamaica.
Equally black, but not as a result of toasted spices, is ambul thiyal ($12), slabs of fresh tuna swimming in ebony sauce. The color and sour taste are attributable to a native fruit called goraka, which is orange when ripe but turns black as it dries; the latter form is used in the sauce. Also darkly hued are the "devilled" selections on the menuchicken, lamb, or shrimp stir-fried with onions and fresh chilies, which arrive on a sizzling platter. Have I ever mentioned that I hate sizzling platters? I'd much rather eat the grease than wear it.
When you reach Nirvana, you won't find much in the way of appetizers. Which is fine, since a couple of the desserts are totally dope, and you'd never get to them if you had to eat the apps. Wattalapan ($4) is a cakey, nut-studded pudding darkened with palm syrup and tweaked with caradamom. It's a dead ringer, tastewise, for the Indian pudding (that's American Indian) one finds in the Yankee restaurants of Boston. "Curd and treacle" constitutes another meal-concluding triumph, a super-thickened yogurt dribbled with a golden syrup. Rich and creamy, you won't mind that the so-called treacle is really only honey.