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I was on the verge of giving up hope, but then our cordial, slightly overattentive waitress suggested we try the raspberry coconut key lime pie ($5.95). Though this was certainly not a delicacy in any Asian country I was aware of, after one bite, I found the yin to my yang. Understand, as a near native of Florida, I have forgone key lime pie for years after being spoiled by the perfection on a plate that is served only at Camille's in Key West, home of the namesake fruit. I decided the pastel green, stale-crusted varieties served anywhere else were merely a waste of caloric space. But this time, I was glad I made the sacrifice. The pie was so refreshing, so tangy that my taste buds went as crazy as an Indiana Pacers player. Omigawd. The white chocolate macadamia nut cheesecake ($5.95) was no slouch either. The nuts added a nuance of flavor and a pleasantly surprising crunch in every bite.
So it seems that, at Bong, Asian flavors can sometimes live together in harmony with down home American foods. But what of other parts of the culinary globe (and further south in Palm Beach County), where Chef Ricky Gopeesingh fuses Caribbean and Indian fare with French style at Nirvana?
After earning a degree of local fame as chef at the Pineapple Grille in Delray Beach, Gopeesingh opened Nirvana in Boynton Beach a year and a half ago. The location is a bit strange, since this tastefully decorated, upscale gem is wedged in a strip mall neighbored by a Best Buy and a McDonalds. But once my guest and I were inside, the sounds of steel drums and live acoustic guitar and reggae combined with soothing bubbles from a fish tank and warm, dark wood furniture, to take us away like a Calgon bath.
Bong: 150 E. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-368-3338. Lunch 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5 till 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, till midnight Friday and Saturday.
The small restaurant was pretty empty when we arrived, but eventually, nicely dressed, respectfully quiet, middle-aged couples and small groups occupied some of the tables. Nirvana is geared to parties of six or fewer, so one will rarely be forced to listen to a group of giddy bachelorettes discussing their latest eyeliner application revelations. Plus, you get lots of personal attention from the wait staff and bartenders, since the compactness of the space encourages intimacy.
Our curiosity was piqued when the waitress served rolled Trinidadian flatbreads and foccacia with pools of green apple chutney and sweet and sour tamarind for dipping. But when she brought our appetizer to the table, we knew we were in for a treat. The plantain-crusted crab cake ($8) showed up in no time and looked like a carnival on a plate. Picture a nest of young, leafy greens topped with a hearty slice of beefsteak tomato. Spiraling out from the nest are curved slices of avocado. The lightly coated crab cake sits proudly in the center of the plate, topped with a scoop of goat cheese, speared by a sugared wonton. It looked as good as it tasted.
Every item on Nirvana's menu is just as complex. If you are in the mood for a plain burger and fries, buddy, you're in the wrong place. Here, you can choose from a number of proteins, including peppered lamp chops served with their pencil-thin bones sticking out ($27) or Bahamian marinated spiced salmon ($19). Each plate has so many explosive colors -- deep curry yellows, bright red peppers, rich green herbs -- that your stomach will think it's at the circus. Take for example our entrée, a mango chicken dish with goat cheese and mixed vegetables ($23). Can you picture the sunset-orange mango contrasting with the pale white of the chicken and the jade green of shredded zucchini skin? Now surround these victuals with a moat of purple port wine berry sauce and you have a rainbow the likes of which Pride Fest attendees have never seen. And the best part is, all the components were perfectly prepared. The cheese was chilled, the chicken was hot, and the vegetables were crispy and flavorful. And, lest I forget the humble side salad, which I usually forego: This time, I couldn't resist digging in to the pile of mixed greens, sprinkled with shreds of green apple, carrot, and jicama. The magnificent crunch was only enhanced by a light-handed splash of champagne vinaigrette dressing.
The chicken entrée obviously leaned more to the Caribbean side, so we ordered a curry dish to test the Indian balance. Our choices included chicken, shrimp roti, or lemon caper cilantro trout ($19), which we thought looked most interesting. To this day, I don't know if we got lucky or if this is how this divine creation always tastes, but the fish was so delicate that it barely hung on to our forks. And for those who aren't big fans of seafood, this selection is worth making a sacrifice. Somehow, the chef has devised a way to bathe the trout in just the right amount of lemon, caper, garlic, orange, and butternut squash to add acidity, creating a plate with no fishy taste but loads of succulent flavor.
If you are concerned that pairing your meal with a piña colada will put you over the fruity edge, don't fret -- you won't find any frou-frou drinks here. Only wine and beer are offered. But with more than 200 types of wine, 16 of which are served by the glass and others served as half bottles, you won't feel a loss. However, if you have to tame your uncontrollable sweet tooth, look to the dessert menu. Our slice of lemon coconut cake ($6) was refreshing and light, and the crème brûlée topped with wild berries ($7) was certainly worth a taste.