You'd have to have steel cojones, or some mixture of naiveté and optimism, to name your first restaurant Nirvana. You'd be setting the bar in the stratosphere and opening yourself up to some expensive, cutting jokes if you failed to deliver. The word nirvana has a lot of meanings, including "the end of suffering." I've never known anybody in the biz who claimed their suffering ended the day they opened their first restaurant. Au contraire: Let the toil and trouble begin!
Nirvana also refers to the extinction of desire. Or supreme contentment, ultimate self-knowledge. But it turns out the word resonated for chef-owner Ricky Gopeesingh in an entirely different register: He named his first restaurant after his baby daughter. Nirvana Gopeesingh has been gumming her Dad's curried chicken and homemade roti ever since.
Gopeesingh's 4-year-old place in Boynton Beach delivers on its name's implicit promise. Yet my desire is unextinguished. I'm not quite finished with my earthly adventure: I have a lot of eating still ahead of me, and I want to do a fair amount of it at this delightful restaurant. I desire its grilled prawns and crab cakes, curried squash soup, potato-plantain salad, and pan-roasted chicken. I desire to try the Caribbean snapper with coo-coo (that's Trinidadian patois for couscous) and tomato choka; I desire the lobster ravioli, which they were out of last time I dropped by. I desire to become a beloved customer so the hot waitresses can fawn over me on a regular basis. And from what I gathered from watching him lean his hunky forearms on the bar late one night as he tipped a glass, I desire to get to know this handsome, black-eyed chef — culinarily speaking — through many meals and many bottles of wine. Here's a guy who doesn't think vegetables and fruit are emasculating, a dude who knows how to use sweetness to balance fire. What a man.
The 42-year-old Gopeesingh comes from Trinidad, where Indian and island cuisines merged in the 19th Century. The resulting fusion was probably the only lasting pleasant thing the British colonists inadvertently spawned (Indians imported to islands as indentured servants — bad. Man-zan curry chicken with cabbage slaw and plantains every Sunday since — good).
Gopeesingh has taken his native island's star turns — seafood, chutneys, and curries — and made them yet more wonderful and purely his own. He left Trinidad at 23 and worked his way through French, Italian, Southwestern, and Floribbean restaurants — he was sous chef at Pineapple Grille in Delray Beach before he opened his own place. Gopeesingh has been cooking since he was 10, and his particular way of seeing derives from his Buddhist background, his island heritage, and his classic French training whipped into a nostalgia for his mother's Hindu Indian-Caribbean vegetarian cooking. This heady, fruity brew is the basis for his menu.
Thus, you're not going to find anything else quite like Nirvana in these two counties. Drive down 441 in Lauderdale and you'll run across lots of Trinidadian roti shops, but none of those unleavened breads has the subtle, nutty sweetness of Gopeesingh's, and none is served with homemade green apple chutney and mango salsa on white tablecloths. We have our Indian eateries, and some are delicious, but not one would ever think to rub a juicy, rare rib-eye steak with garam masala and lob it onto a bed of mashed potatoes or to make a hollandaise sauce with ginger, lemongrass reduction, and orange juice to drizzle over a plate of Frenched lamb chops.
The conception of this food is romantic. The elegantly appointed tables, the lazy glow of a fish tank in the entry, work their seductive power. There's low lighting and pop-reggae on the sound system, a well-stocked wine bar. It's the kind of place you might want to take a date if you were really invested in not flubbing it. A leisurely, precise pace means you're not going to get rushed through dessert so they can shoehorn the next couple into your spot. These waitresses know how to set down a dish or replace used silverware. They love the menu too and are thrilled to detail it.
No wonder. Gopeesingh hasn't changed his lineup of appetizers and entrées much over four years: his signature homemade roti, livened with a pinch of sugar and given a bit of heft with baking powder, then grilled for a slightly crisp exterior, is made fresh daily in the late afternoon. Every table gets a plate of it with the green apple chutney and mango dipping sauce. Early favorites, like grilled prawns set over green salad in a basket made of toasted Parmesan ($8), haven't disappeared either, thank God. Three plump, lightly charred shrimp nest in a delicate green salad: You break the Parmesan basket into the greens as you eat down into it to make lacy, salty croutons.
Gopeesingh cools off a creamy, deep-orange curried squash soup ($6) by topping it with marinated cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions, effectively combining the soup and salad course. Sounds weird, but it works. A dollop of goat cheese draws out the sweetness in a crab cake wearing a coat of crisp plantain and a jaunty, sugared wonton hat ($8), inverted commas of creamy avocado and a pineapple compote setting it off like a memorable bon mot.
I love the way Gopeesingh handles fruits and vegetables, like his cabbage slaws and tropical fruit chutneys and the complimentary salad that precedes each entrée — a toothsome confetti of slivered green apple, jicama, red pepper, and carrot in a champagne-citrus vinaigrette. He knows how to grill a steak or pan-roast a chicken with peppercorns, cilantro, and thyme (a special), but his sensibility is deeply vegetarian, revering what comes from tree and field. Seeing how he can incorporate sautéed carrots, itty-bitty broccoli florets, and buttery braised purple and green cabbage into a dish that includes lentil dhal and spiced Gulf shelf shrimp ($19) makes you realize exactly how veg-deprived most restaurant meals are. Produce isn't an afterthought here — it's woven through the experience from your first bite of roti swiped through a pool of apple chutney to your last spoonful of mango sorbet with berry compote. A potato and plantain salad ($5, a side order), one of Gopeesingh's more brilliant inventions, takes the traditional Trinidadian classic mix of green peas, red-skinned potatoes, and carrots and sweetens the deal with candied plantains. I could eat it for breakfast, brunch, dinner, and dessert and still crave the stuff. Gopeesingh's kitchen, which happily whips up vegetarian or vegan dinners on request, celebrates bounty in a way that's nearly religious.
Not that he doesn't know what to do with a great piece of meat. Gopeesingh rubs a rib eye ($25) with pungent garam masala and grills it to an exact medium rare. Cut into it and inhale the perfume of cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon; you'll never be satisfied again with plain green peppercorns or sauce bordelaise. Seriously sumptuous garlic mashed potatoes and a veggie mix of carrots, purple cabbage, and broccoli soften the steak's extroverted flavors.
Gopeesingh's general palate tends toward the sweet rather than the savory, so some of these dishes can get to feel cloying when they're eaten in sequence. The dash of sugar in the roti is delicious, as are the tart honey tones of mango and apple, but by the time you get to the end of a meal that's included tropical fruits, sugared wontons, honey bell mango cream aioli, coconut rice, and pineapple citrus vinaigrette, you might think dessert is overkill. It was for me, anyway. I didn't like the texture or the temperature of the crème brûlée ($7). At that point, I think a bitter black cup of Jamaican coffee would have been more to the point. Gopeesingh might rethink his dessert course — a handful of salted nuts or a sour cheese with spiced crackers would have been just the ticket.
Nirvana's early-bird prix fixe, served weekdays from 5 till 6:30 p.m. and weekends from 5 to 6, makes a great pretheater or preconcert deal: $15.99 for three courses with a choice of entrée and a glass of wine. They'll get you out in time for that 7:30 showtime at the Kravis Center or Florida Stage. Soothe one hunger with mango goat cheese chicken and another with Red Hot Chili Peppers live at Mizner Park. And there you have the ingredients for an occasional glimpse of nirvana. We may not get there, but we can all eat trying.