It shouldn’t have worked.When the construction began in the cavernous former Scopa restaurant space on Madison Avenue, we thought it was surely doomed.Who invests that kind of money these days to open a restaurant without a TV star chef or a brand name to back it up? When Pranna finally opened in the fall of 2008, right at the beginning of what is now acknowledged as one of the worst economic troubles ever, we decided to begin to taking wagers on when it would close.
But then something strange happened: Pranna began to thrive despite the extravagance of the place.Who knew we wanted Asian fusion? What’s with those shimmering glazed tiles and odd crystal chandeliers? Weren’t we supposed to feel guilty these days for plunking down hard-earned money on ephemeral things like tasty nibbles? A constant string of glamish Flatiron girls and bemused men began to frequent the bar during happy hour. Hey, we even saw diners in the vast, airy dining room on weekday nights.Yep, it seems Pranna is here to stay.
Nomad, the cute moniker for the area north of Madison Square Park, is in the middle of a minor renaissance, and Pranna has become its biggest draw. Perhaps it’s the happy hour “gastronomic stimulus package,” which includes a beer and naan combo for $5 or a satay sampling (one red chicken curry and one minced beef coconut satay) for just six bucks. It gets boys and girls through the door—and then they stick around.
If you do decide to forego the cruisey bar or arrive on a night that’s not programmed for some party or “launch” (the management has been savvy with booking high-end events that no one is supposed to be throwing anymore), then you’ll be glad to know the food is actually worth it.
Pleased that we didn’t have to suffer the tapas pact (which almost never works out fairly) with our friends, we were happy to share the food we did order on a slow but comfortable Wednesday evening. Start with the wok-fried cashews ($4), which are served warm and tossed with Thai chili flakes and chives. And it’s hard to go wrong with a Diver scallop that’s served up with a tamarind and blood orange reduction ($6 weekdays), with Honshimeji mushrooms and asparagus. Although the satays are meant to be a signature feature, they offer the least-significant appeal: A baconwrapped stuffed prawn ($10 for two) was undemanding decadence—easily devoured and forgotten. Instead, be a bit more adventurous and you’ll be better satisfied.
Chefs Chai Trivedi and Gavin Portsmouth (both formerly of Sapa) offer a menu that can appear overwhelming, but really it’s just a mix of similar ideas repeated in different price points.The best time to sample is during the week since many of the pricier items are offered in “warm-up small plates.” So instead of $26 for the spectacular cumin-crusted hangar steak, you can get a slightly smaller version for just $13. And you should. If you’re going to spend money on dining out (and we all need to feel special now and then), we want to make sure we don’t walk away disappointed. This steak takes standard “man food” and improves on it with the addition of potent fig chutney, onion rings and a Penang curry sauce.
You’ll find plenty of re-worked Southern Asian faves with various curries and sauces, but that can just set you up for disappointment. Although our server highly recommended the Vietnamese Clay Pot Chicken ($23), it failed to wow. The mustard greens and sticky rice were good but overwhelmed by strong flavors from better dishes.
The most difficult decision may be how to end the meal. There isn’t much to the dessert menu, so we went with something called Pranna Bakery for the Table ($15). It includes a selection of baked goods—peanut butter cookies, anise biscotti, chocolate fudge cake and spice cake—to be dipped in chocolate, salty peanut butter and lime marshmallow sauces. OK, so maybe it is still possible to indulge—and feel more than a little guilty—these days.
79 Madison Ave. (betw. E. 28th & E. 29th Sts.), 212-696-5700