At Nirvana, the menu roams even farther afield, offering Pan-Asian dishes filtered through a Burmese culinary sensibility. My friends who work for the Castro Theater recommended Nirvana as one of the few really interesting eateries in the district that also accommodates a group (if you call ahead). Owner Philip Chu's Nan Yang in Oakland is widely considered the Bay Area's best Burmese restaurant, and he opened Nirvana some 18 months ago as yet another of the multinational noodle joints lately multiplying in the Castro. In the past few months, the menu has expanded to include wide-ranging entrees with roots in Korea, Japan, China, India, and Vietnam, as well as a few that are specifically Burmese.
The front dining room, a mixture of wood and whiteness, is usually crowded and noisy, but you have other seating choices. A smaller dining room on a raised platform in back is airier and marginally quieter (although it's still a strain to hear your dinner companions or to be heard by the servers). Up another short staircase is a heated nonsmoking patio. Some evenings there's a brief wait for a table, but it's usually quicker than the wait for your reserved table at any number of local gastronomic temples.
Dinner begins with a palate-tickling relish of carrot, daikon, and cabbage pickled in sweet rice vinegar. We were delighted by an appetizer sampler ($9), featuring tidbits from several Asian cultures, each of them subtly different from the standard versions. Spring rolls have the typical Southeast Asian crisp dough wrapper, but with an atypically soft, eggy filling. Samosas are filled with lightly curried pureed potatoes, while tofu satay reincarnates bean curd into some wholly other substance: The small cubes are crisped by frying, rubbed with curry spices, and finally skewer-grilled until firm and flavorful. And grilled green onion bread, cut in triangles, resembles extra-thick Indian naan. Four distinctive dipping sauces come along for the ride -- a white herbed sauce (probably yogurt-based), an ivory curried sauce, a spicy red chili mixture, and an exotically seasoned Asian avatar of tomato salsa. We also enjoyed an appetizer of dragon dumplings ($6.50), plump steamed spinach dim sum accompanied by red chili dip.
Ginger salad ($6.50) is one of Burma's best-known dishes. In Nirvana's version, napa cabbage, ground dried shrimp, peanuts, and coconut chips predominate, along with tiny, crunchy coral half-domes that turn out to be toasted moong dal (split mung beans), lending a flavor of East Indian snack-mix. Unfortunately, the ginger in the mixture was barely perceptible, compared to its much bolder presence the last time I tried the salad at parent restaurant Nan Yang.
The menu features a full page of noodle dishes, both vegetarian and non-. With most, you have your choice of linguine, spinach ramen, udon, or rice noodles. We chose udon for our "zesty seafood noodles" ($8). The result was very different from the typical Japanese bowlful of snaky white noodles in fishy broth -- the pasta was dressed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions in a creamy coconut sauce with an assertive black pepper note. On top was a riot of shrimp, squid, bay scallops, and large green-lipped New Zealand mussels.
From the grill, we tried jumbo "pagan prawns" ($15). These are the huge prawns sometimes called slipper lobsters, the West Coast's version of langoustines. I don't know what makes them "pagan," as they were surely baptized by the waters off Monterey. They came hard-grilled and butterflied in the shell, to peel and dip like lobster tails into herbed garlic butter sauce. As with all non-noodle entrees, the plate included jasmine rice and assorted steamed vegetables with a splash of the same thin, herbed white sauce we'd met on the appetizer sampler. The vegetables varied with each entree -- they included asparagus, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and zucchini, in several combinations -- but the common element among them was stringent undercooking to just slightly past raw.
One of Nirvana's most popular dishes sounded somewhat more exotic on the menu than it proved on the platter. Mango-glazed cinnamon chicken ($11) consisted of reasonably tender pan-fried white meat in a very sweet glaze with a mere hint of cinnamon and the faintest whisper of cardamom; alongside came a ramekin of more mango syrup with a cinnamon stick as a swizzle. Sauteed Bombay beef ($11) was more complex: The razor-thin slices of velvety beef had a smoky note, enveloped in a slightly sweet, thick, tomato-garnished sauce.
Although Burmese cuisine is a melange of Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian influences, the food at Nirvana bears a distinctive stamp. Whatever their national origins, all the dishes we tried had just a hint of spiciness, enough to lend excitement but not to overwhelm the flavors. The delicate curries embodied a gentle sensuality and smooth richness that was finally closer to Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine than to their Indian or Thai counterparts.
Complementing the food is a sprightly, reasonably priced wine list chosen by maven Alan Goldfarb, including suggestions of wines to match specific menu items. The full bar also offers exotic beers and a wild assortment of cocktails and "elixirs"; I succumbed to the tropical lure of a Chi-Chi (just yummy, and only $4.50) while my friend dove into her banana daiquiri ($4.25).
In Buddhism, "nirvana" is the complete detachment from personal and sensual desires. My companions did not quite achieve it: They'd been looking forward to fried bananas, but the restaurant no longer makes them, offering only ice cream for dessert (in Asian flavors, of course). But I was quite satisfied. Delicious, unusual food at affordable prices makes Nirvana good enough for me.
544 Castro (between 18th and 19th streets), 861-2226. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m., Monday 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted for parties of five or more. Front dining room only is wheelchair accessible. Parking: You're kidding. Muni: 24 Divisadero, 33 Ashbury at 18th, plus F, K, L, M, 35 Eureka, 37 Corbett at Market Street. Sound level: very loud except for back patio.