Would Nirmal’s have made it in Seattle a decade ago? So many Seattleites now hail from India or travel there, they know Indian culinary differences by region—that food from Kerala in the south starts with coconut oil, or that Bengal in the east tastes like chingri malai curry.
Chef Nirmal Monteiro, a household name in Mumbai, cooks all of it. After career-making postings in India and Asia, Monteiro was lured to Seattle by old catering colleagues Oliver and Gita Bangera, who were looking to open a pan-Indian restaurant—but only if they could score Nirmal’s name for the sign. They chose a skinny, airy slot in Pioneer Square, worldy with brick walls and minimalist lighting.
As for that sign—Nirmal was reportedly much more interested in the kitchen. He is as precise with a $10 lunchtime kati roll—overstuffed with greens, tandoori chicken, and spiced, fried potatoes—as he is with a thali platter; his daily dahl rotates among 10 different types (“Every region has its variation!”) and he doesn’t think twice about, say, throwing a steak in the tandoor oven. Sacred cow isn’t exactly traditional fare in Hindu India—but experimentation is a hallmark of Nirmal’s daily specials. More so than at Shanik, Seattle’s last high-end Indian restaurant, which sought to serve the same constituency but, in the end, didn’t interest them enough.
Still, make no mistake: Nirmal’s touch is subtle. He seasons with more layered nuance than explosive spice—an authentic stroke that may leave Indian food novices unconvinced and natives, like the Mumbai expat at the next table, a little deflated. But returning—even obsessively. “A regular told me he’s going out of town,” chuckles Oliver, a gregarious front man who roams and greets at every service. “He wanted to explain why he wouldn’t be here next week.”