June 27-July 3, 2007

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First Bite

Nirvana Indian Fusion Sanctuary

By Carey Sweet

There's a lady with a huge sword on her head gyrating next to my table. The curved blade rests sharp-side down on her skull, and her long black hair swirls as she spins and leaps on one foot, whirling to the Goth-Indian music thumping in the background.

She's fascinating. But the belly dancer is also in the way of the buffet. I wish she'd wrap up her act and move on, because I've been really enjoying my dinner at downtown Santa Rosa's new Nirvana Indian Fusion Sanctuary, yet my copper tray is almost empty. I'm ready to get up and load up on more of the dozen or so tasty dishes that chef-owner Neil Advani has set out as part of his buffet spread. It's a good deal he's got going here--just $12.95 for this filling feast.

I've eaten my way through rajma curry (like super hot chili with lots of kidney beans and onion) and dum aloo, a simple but satisfying mash of spinach and potatoes. I've scraped up every last forkful of vegetarian tikka masala, with its green beans, bell pepper and cauliflower in a thick, creamy sauce of red paprika yogurt, onion and tomato. And while the pepper fish was bland swimming in a slightly spicy beige sauce, it was also nicely meaty, and I greatly liked every bite.

My mom tips her little copper cup of shorba (tomato soup) at me. "Wow," she says succinctly, extolling its salty, silky, clean, light, deep nuances. Saag chicken is like a bright yellow soup, too, not normally a description I would appreciate for this dish, but the flavors are excellent and we sop the broth with fluffy naan sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

The bejeweled woman moves away to reset the CD that started skipping in its player next to the hostess stand. As she does, a large group of diners in the loft upstairs breaks into a cheer, because they've caught sight of their guest, the birthday boy, coming through the front door behind her.

Seizing the opportunity, I take my tray and pile on scoops of masala jeera (spicy tri-colored rice with nuts), dollops of mango chutney and crunchy onion pakora. A heap of the excellent house salad shows the California-fusion aspect Advani touts: it brims with peanuts, chopped romaine, raisins, feta and pickled cucumber in a vibrant balsamic vinaigrette of mint, ginger, cilantro and mustard.

I settle back at the table, and Mom steals my raita; she has happily burned her mouth on the fiery chicken tandoori and tempers her taste buds with the lovely sour-cool cucumber yogurt.

Advani stops by as I'm sipping my mango lassi ($3), the drink intensely fruity-sweet, dashed with saffron and quite exquisite. He asks, and I nod. "All good, all quite happy."

As we spoon up our dessert of rice pudding perfumed with cardamom and nutmeg, the belly dancer spins by again, dodging diners in her path. It's a tiny room she's navigating, but sword be dammed--I'm going back for thirds.

Nirvana Indian Fusion Sanctuary, 420 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Open for buffet dining lunch ($8.95) and dinner daily. À la carte menu available all meals except Monday evening. 707.575.3608.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.