Nirvana vegetarian cafe has plenty of vegan and gluten-free options, as well as expertly prepared teas. By Lien Hoang. Photos by Fred Wissink.
Nirvana is a cafe dedicated to both tea and vegetarian fare, and you go as much for the food as for the brews.
A rare Vietnamese eatery to host teatime (9am-5pm daily), with cream and scones, Nirvana serves more than 20 teas, like passion fruit ice tea and more classic options. As with most of the teas, the cinnamon and red date black tea is steeped just right, with a bit of sweetness whether you add honey or not.
Unlike other Vietnamese chay restaurants, this one relies less on artificial meats and more on tofu, mushrooms and vegetables. The chicken cabbage salad (VND 49,000) combines all of these with a drizzling of just enough chilli lime soy dressing that’s not too astringent. The fake chicken more resembles pig’s ear, but gives the refreshing salad a scent of the classic whole chicken that Vietnamese so often boil, strip, and squeeze with herbs, onion and pepper.
Mushrooms are the highlight at Nirvana, which uses wood ear rather than the more common stubby variety. The restaurant seems to stick to the same blend of mushrooms and vegetables across several entrees, including the curry (VND 65,000) and the pho stir-fry (VND 65,000).
Vietnamese curries usually don’t hold up well against their Thai or Indian rivals, but the rendition here, with a coconut base and eggplants and sweet potatoes, is surprisingly good, especially for the sugar-prone. The orange curry is served with Dragon Blood brown rice, which actually appears red and is great for those who like their grains firm and not-so-sticky.
Also better than expected is the pho, which I don’t think should ever be stir-fried, especially with the flat noodles used here. The oyster sauce and shitake help make up for the too-soft noodles and carrots, though.
“Before when we had vegetarian food it was for religious reasons, but now more and more young people are interested for health reasons,” Ngoc, the owner, says. But for a slightly less healthy option, the fried wonton with plum chilli sauce (VND 59,000) has a mushy inside of green beans, potato, carrot and wood ear mushrooms, plus a crispy golden outside.
Or, if you like Vietnamese desserts, try the banh chuoi nuong (VND 39,000), a sort of pasty banana cake with coconut cream sauce. It goes well with the red date tea and serves as an easy introduction for those who tend to avoid Vietnamese sweets.
And for the extra sensitive, Nirvana’s menu denotes lots of vegan and gluten-free dishes.