Udipi-born Chef Hari Nayak creates a modern Indian menu at Sona, a post-pandemic restaurant launched in Manhattan, New York, with inputs from actor-producer Priyanka Chopra
Priyanka Chopra added gol gappas. Nick Jonas championed gajar ka halwa. Chef Hari Nayak pulled it all together, in an edgy, New York-inspired modern Indian menu.
Recently launched Sona in Manhattan is already packed with enthusiastic diners, despite the lingering shadow of the pandemic. Or perhaps because of it, as people embrace the exuberance of dining out again after a year of takeaway.
In keeping with the celebratory mood, the restaurant offers bright, imaginative interpretations of Indian food, with Udipi-born and New York-trained Nayak at the helm. The butter chicken, however, is all Priyanka Chopra.
When David Rabin and Maneesh Goyal decided to create a uniquely New York restaurant with an Indian soul, they joined hands with the actor, who came on board as a creative collaborator.
‘Don’t forget the classics’
“My cooking style is more innovative and global in approach. During tasting sessions, it was Priyanka who kept the menu grounded. She kept reminding me: ‘Don’t forget the classics’,” says Nayak, over a call from New York.
“We have been working on this restaurant for three years, and she has been a part of Sona right from the beginning,” he says, adding that the actor’s husband, singer-songwriter Nick Jonas also participated in tasting sessions when he was in town. “He loves Indian food. He loves paneer, and gajar halwa is one of his favourite things to eat.”
Chef Nayak adds with a laugh, “If it wasn’t for Priyanka, I would never have added gol gappas to the menu. We have a clientele that is almost 90% non-desi, and seat about 300 every night. We need to teach them how to eat it…” Sona’s version of the popular Indian street food features avocado and spiced tequila. “Everybody orders it before the meal now. That’s how they get the party started!”
Deliberately defying categorisations, the food is inspired by Indian flavours but hinges on locally sourced ingredients. “I use cooking techniques that are modern, and food that is in season,” says Chef Nayak.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1998, he worked with influential chef Daniel Boulud at his 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, Daniel.
In 2007, he collaborated with chef Vikas Khanna to write Modern Indian Cooking (Silverback Books). Then launched restaurants in Kuwait, Riyadh, Dubai and Bangkok. His Indian homecoming was with Alchemy, at the Chancery Pavilion in Bengaluru, in 2018.
Discussing how tough the pandemic was on the hospitality industry, and its impact on restaurant openings this year, he explains that Sona was reshaped by 2020. “We planned to open in the summer last year. Then the pandemic began, and we had this fully built restaurant that we couldn’t run. We kind of gave up then. But the landlord was supportive enough for us to get through, and the partners were strong enough to be able to wait.”
When they could finally open, a few months ago, they realised the approach needed to be different, given the impact of COVID-19 on New York, and the world. “It was more luxurious, finer and refined before. We made it a little more approachable, a little more homey, a little more comfortable… we made it into the kind of restaurant where you would want to come again and again.”
Despite a rush of openings — Chef Nayak estimates there were about 80 New York restaurant launches last month — Sona has been packed, and received a flurry of rave reviews.
The Indians do not always approve, though. “Some of the worst reviews I get are from Indians — I sometimes get scared when I see them,” says Chef Nayak, adding, “I would not dare to open a Sona in India.”
He explains that the restaurant veers away from tradition. For instance, butter garlic crab is served with caviar here; their Gruyere cheese dosa has an edamame arbi mash; and the tandoor roasted beets are paired with chaat masala hazelnuts.
“The stereotypical notion is that Indian food is all curry and spice, so I am purposely trying to change that perception,” he says. “For example, right now plums are in season: perfect, juicy plums from local farms. We reduce them with a little sugar, into a sticky, sweet syrup with a little tartness, then dip jalebis in them, staining them with that red, berry colour. Is it Indian? That depends on what you expect from a jalebi.”
While the food is sophisticated, Chef Nayak veers away from showy techniques, preferring instead to highlight great ingredients. “I’ve realised that as I mature as a chef, my cooking becomes simpler,” he says, adding, “I believe in the basics: more so after that crazy last year we’ve had!”