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Two Dosas, Twice Daily 

Nimai's Bliss Kitchen in Newburgh

Appetizers clockwise from top left: patra pinwheel; khasta kachori; khaman; samosas; spinach pakora - KAREN PEARSON
  • Karen Pearson
  • Appetizers clockwise from top left: patra pinwheel; khasta kachori; khaman; samosas; spinach pakora

Newburgh is basically the last place you'd expect to find a restaurant like Nimai's Bliss Kitchen. The building that once housed a dingy diner now serves fresh, farm-to-table, all-vegetarian meals based on the ancient dietary practices of Ayurveda. The airy dining rooms glow with natural light pouring from skylights in the vaulted ceiling. The locally hand-carved tables and chairs taper elegantly at the leg and look onto windowsills decorated with spice-laden mason jars. In short, Nimai's Bliss Kitchen breaks Newburgh's cultural mold twice over, first by serving Indian food in a neighborhood dotted with pizzerias and taquerias, and then by adding a meatless, mystically inspired twist. Turns out, this cultural dissonance was exactly why the Raval brothers picked Newburgh to set up shop.

"We often think only the elite can afford to do yoga," says Dr. Ashik Raval with a smile. He wears a collared shirt, suit jacket, and tilaka mark on his forehead symbolizing his devotion to Krishna. "We think the same thing about health food, but it's not true. You don't need to be rich to eat healthy."

Nimai's Bliss Kitchen predicates itself on this maxim. Most menu items cost less than $10, and $13 buys you a bottomless thali platter complete with roti flat bread and dessert. The thali, an Indian classic, consists of rice and half a dozen sides served in small bowls on a distinctive tray. The heat and heaviness of the chana masala chickpeas balance with the riced, ginger-laced cauliflower; and the aloo subzi (potatoes and green beans) goes down like a long-lost comfort food. Then there's the creamy dal makhani, a rich blend of red lentils and tomato that pairs perfectly with the bread. On the subject of appetizers, the mixed vegetable pakoras deserve special note. At Nimai's, these fritters are a toothy amalgam of potato, broccoli, bell pepper, chickpea flour, and spices, deep-fried and served with a sweet-and-tangy tamarind sauce—a winning start to any meal.

The menu also accommodates palates new to Indian cuisine by offering an assortment of Western dishes like pizza and burgers, all of which adhere to the Ayurvedic principles of freshness and vegetarianism. Some of these, like the Eggplant Parm pizza and Al Pesto pasta, stick to traditional flavor profiles with vegan and gluten-free options at a nominal cost. Others, like the Mexican Pie and Dabeli Burger, flirt with Hispanic and Indian fusion concepts. The Dabeli, a mainstay in parts of India, would strike the average American as pure innovation in the art of sandwichmaking. A masala potato patty supplants the standard veggie patty as the main texture element, cilantro fills in for lettuce, peanuts supply the protein, and noodles made from chickpea flour add the necessary crunch factor. It arrives at the table bejeweled with pomegranate seeds, as exciting to behold as it is to eat.

Of Dosas and Doshas

Even though it originated several thousand years ago, Ayurveda (from Sanskrit yus "life" + veda "science") mirrors modern nutrition in its founding principal: Food may be used to promote internal health and help fight disease. (Imagine coming to this conclusion back when the wheel had just come out in beta.) According to Ayurvedic philosophy, the body contains three elemental substances called doshas: pitta (fire), vata (air), and kapha (earth). The goal is to keep these qualities in equal proportion. Illness and discomfort indicate that one force has overridden the others and must be balanced out again using the right combination of foods.

Traditionally, the Ayurvedic meal functions as a sort of prescription and is cooked to address the consumer's unique nutritional needs. Since Nimai's Bliss Kitchen caters to the general public, however, it falls back on Ayurveda's fundamental values: freshness and vegetarianism. During winter, the restaurant resorts to regional farmer's markets for the bulk of its produce, but come spring, it will source three-quarters of its produce (and all of its milk) from Gita Nagari Organic Farm in Pennsylvania's Tuscarora Valley. The restaurant's menu changes on a weekly basis to accommodate harvest cycles, and the kitchen only serves food that has been prepared within the past few hours. Each dish thrills with vibrancy, leaving even the most diehard omnivores feeling deeply satisfied.

And, counterintuitive though it may seem to have sweets in a healthy kitchen, Nimai's offers a host of Ayurvedic desserts designed to aid in healing rather than inhibit it. Many of these sweets are cooked with ghee, a specially prepared clarified butter loaded with vitamins and essential fatty acids. In most cases, they're also more nutrient rich than your average puff pastry. Take ghari, for instance: a doughnut-hole-size pistachio cookie made with ghee and cardamom. Or the carrot halwa, a delicious hash of carrot, raisins, and almonds finished off with cardamom and milk. Or, everyone's favorite, the mango lassi, an Indian smoothie made with homemade yogurt and fresh mango. "If taken not just by themselves but with other nutritious foods—fruit, nuts, spices, and so on—sweet things do have a place in the diet, beyond sensory enjoyment," says Dr. Raval.

New Windsor local Tara Federman, special educator and longtime aficionado of Indian cuisine, has made Bliss Kitchen a weekly destination. "The food here is so clean, so pure," she says. "You can tell that the chefs are spiritually connected to the food." Federman moonlights as a meditation instructor at the Ananda Ashram in Monroe and believes in the importance of mindfully prepared food.

Others, like Noah Banning, come to Bliss Kitchen for the health benefits. Banning was diagnosed with diabetes three-and-a-half years ago and, as a Newburgh resident, stopped by Nimai's on a whim last fall. The Raval brothers offered Noah an Ayurvedic consultation and suggested how he might use diet to help bolster his body through its instability. "I came back, and they made me feel comfortable. Next thing I know, I'm here every day because I live close." Banning was new to vegetarianism and surprised that he didn't need meat every day to feel healthy and satisfied. Still, that was nothing compared to the surprise he got at the doctors' office three months ago. "I don't know how it happened," he says, "but they tell me now that my numbers are no longer diabetic. They said I was good to go off the medicine."

Doctors Ashik, Manish, and Mehul Raval have been practicing pediatric and internal medicine in Newburgh for more than 17 years; their office at Orange Medical Care is right across the parking lot from the restaurant. It was this practice, in fact, that brought to their attention a regional demand for holistic health care. "With allopathic or modern medicine, we treat the symptoms and we treat the numbers, but we hardly ever treat the disease itself," explains Dr. Raval. In his view, Western medications form the front line of defense against disease, giving the body the advantage it needs to begin repairing the damage. The next step, especially in chronic cases, is to support this effort through diet. A diabetes sufferer, for example, might learn to cook with fenugreek (menthi) seeds and leaves for their effectiveness in lowering blood sugar levels. Someone who regularly experiences mental fogginess could turn to ginger instead of caffeine. Dr. Raval hopes that Nimai's Bliss Kitchen will make these foods and attendant philosophy more available to the general public.

Despite the challenges of an ever-changing menu and fledgling wait staff, the restaurant seems to be finding its niche. Since its soft opening last fall, the restaurant has generated considerable buzz and cultivated more than a few devotees. Dr. Raval estimates that 15 of Nimai's patrons come to eat on a daily basis. Pleased though they are with this response, the brothers realize that eating out every day isn't practical for most people. So, in October, they began offering Ayurvedic cooking classes on Friday nights. "Our goal is that somehow people should learn this so they can cook it at home." For just $15, participants receive an hour of cooking instruction, a full dinner, and the chance to taste the food they have just learned to prepare. Those interested in purchasing the raw ingredients for that dish can find them in Nimai's market, which is set off from the restaurant and well stocked in spices, dried goods, and Indian apparel. The cooking classes get between six and 10 participants each week, and attendance is growing.

The Raval brothers' next project will be to convert the building adjacent to their medical practice into a wellness center where people of all ages and backgrounds can attend yoga classes, receive Ayurveda consultations, and learn how to make healthy food taste good.

Nimai's Bliss Kitchen is located at 94 South Robinson Avenue in Newburgh. Winter hours run Monday to Saturday 12 to 9pm and Sunday 12 to 7pm. The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($9.99) is served Monday to Saturday 12 to 3pm. (845) 245-6048; Blisskitchennewburgh.com.

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