The rise of Indian food in the city’s fine dining scene over the last few years has been difficult to ignore, and the latest entrant, Sona, is a brilliant example. NYC has long had a couple of places clustered around East 58th Street offering white tablecloth takes on the cuisine — among them Dawat, famously founded in the 80s by actress and acclaimed cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey — but our litany of ambitious and higher-priced Indian restaurants has lately grown exponentially.
A harbinger of the current era was Indian Accent, a 2016 New Delhi import that playfully introduced local ingredients into northern Indian recipes, such as pastrami-stuffed kulchas, and curried duck confit topped with foie gras. Gupshup, Rahi, Aroqa, Baar Baar, and Dhamaka followed with similar whimsical menus. All were located further downtown than Dawat and Indian Accent, showing how the nexus of newness and innovation among restaurants has long since migrated southward.
These newcomers could be identified by their more modern and edgier décor than the city’s more traditional Indian restaurants (Gupshup’s booze-bottle chandelier, for example), a hopping bar scene propelled by creative mixed drinks, and often a younger, more stylish crowd. The menus played fast and loose with Indian classic dishes, while unabashedly exploring regional cuisines, with menus able to satisfy every dietary preference and peccadillo.
Into this welter recently sprang Sona (which means “gold”), opening a month ago in the Flatiron District on East 20th Street, not far from GupShup. Priyanka Chopra Jonas — a well-known actress, singer, and model long before she married singer Nick Jonas – provided celebrity sizzle, while the chef is Hari Nayak, who has helmed restaurants in Dubai, Bangalore, Bangkok, Tennessee, and Hoboken. Other partners include Maneesh Goyal and David Rabin. Flanked by gilded pillars, the deep and dark interior is more staid than the flashier Gupshup and Baar Baar, tending toward white tablecloths and a formal art program highlighting Indian painters, making the place feel like a gallery.
Divided into one appetizer section and four entrée divisions (which include Signature, Classic, Grilled, and Rice), the menu incorporates traditional Indian recipes as well as dishes drawing on favorites from other nations. Among the traditional options, find a chicken biryani ($28) attributed to the monsoon-beset Malabar coast of India’s Kerala state. The rice casserole comes wrapped in a banana leaf with pineapple raita on the side, and uses the short-grain rice preferred in that region rather than basmati. Studded with cashews and raisins, the biryani tastes of sweet spices, and is a notch better than any I’ve tasted in Jersey City’s India Square, where the dish is an obsession.
From the internationally inspired offerings comes the appetizer of pink snapper ceviche ($17), and the color refers not only to the variety of snapper, but to the kokum-laced broth in which the raw fish is delivered in a greenish heap. The effect is quite stunning, but perhaps more visual than flavorful.
From the classic entree section, a dosa arrives formed into a cone with a pair of sauces, one a yogurt raita and the other a smooth tomato chutney with a hint of nuttiness. But concealed inside the cone is a coating of gruyere, a cheese often used in French cooking — a reminder that dosas and crepes can resemble one another under a chef experimenting in the kitchen. Eat this with your pinkies out, scooping the filling with torn pieces of dosa.
To the collection of more conventional dishes belongs “tamarind BBQ lamb chops” (three for $38, four for $50). They are just about the most tender chops you’ve ever tasted, charred and sweet from their dark fruit glaze, but still pink in the middle. These, too, demand to be eaten by hand, and gnawed till the bones are bare.
My party of four also loved the stuffed chicken wings, which seemed to be inspired by a dish we’d enjoyed in Vietnamese restaurants, the breadcrumb stuffing benefitting from its mild masala, accompanied by a dip of Meyer lemons that tasted like something from the heyday of California cuisine. The menu is not without pathos, too: In a recipe called Floyd’s Goan fish curry ($34), a pale filet bathed in coconut clam broth demonstrates the Portuguese influences on the distinct coastal cuisine of Goa. Deliciously creamy, with clams providing a touch of bitterness, the dish is memorably served with red rice. I probably don’t need to tell you that the dish is an homage to Floyd Cardoz, the New York chef and unflagging promoter of Indian food who succumbed to COVID-19 a year ago.
For me, the only real dud of the evening was a version of saag paneer ($10) listed as a side, in which the fresh cheese had been crumbled rather than compressed, and the swiss chard barely seasoned. On the other hand, there were many things I wanted to try on another visit. Among them were a Calcutta mutton cutlet, a Bengali mustard tofu, and a crab puri served with caviar. Yes, there’s no shortage of luxury at Sona.
Desserts ($14) were a high point, too, including an elaborate version of carrot halwa in which the pudding-like dessert had been turned into Western carrot cake; and a chocolate gateaux with cashew praline which further established the restaurant’s way with nuts. Among the hundreds of Indian meals I’ve enjoyed over the last decade, this was one of the best, and left me trying to figure out how to eat there again as Sona continues to soar in popularity. (My advice: Grab an outdoor walk-in table in the rain at 5 p.m. early in the week.)