The star signed on to be a creative collaborator in David Rabin (The Lambs Club, Skylark, Café Clover) and entrepreneur Maneesh Goyal’s new restaurant, Sona.
Opening on Thursday, Sona will serve modern Indian food in a stylish space in Gramercy. “Sona is the very embodiment of timeless India and the flavours I grew up with,” Chopra Jonas wrote on her Instagram announcing the project.
“I would oftentimes get asked, where’s the Indochine of Indian food in New York, where do you go to have really great Indian food with a cool vibe?” recalls Goyal, who moved to New York City in 1999. “I kept saying, that’s a great question, but there’s no answer to that. Ultimately, I said, well, if there’s not an answer, maybe I should create the answer.”
Goyal’s parents emigrated from Punjab and eventually opened one of Dallas’ first Indian restaurants in 1975, a few months after Goyal was born. Called India House, the restaurant was open through the mid-1980s and the experience stuck with him. “It started to become more apparent to me that the country of my ancestral heritage, if I didn’t try to build a bridge to it, what’s going to be my connection?” says Goyal. “There’s a continuity, there’s a legacy that I would love to be a part of.”
Goyal and Rabin started discussing the project back in 2015, and they soon brought on Chef Hari Nayak—a Daniel Boulud protégé at the helm of Dubai’s Bombay Bungalow and Masti, Bangkok’s Jhol, India’s Alchemy Bangalore, and the chef behind the ubiquitous Café Spice meals in grocery stores—for his first executive chef role at a U.S. restaurant. Interior designer and stylist Melissa Bowers, the former design director for the Miami Beach Faena District’s artistic fantasyland, came on in 2018.
Bowers and Chopra Jonas worked closely on the look and feel of the restaurant. “There’s nobody that personifies global Indian more than Priyanka, and she has broken down boundaries in a way that no one from Bollywood has today,” says Goyal, who met Chopra Jonas through a mutual friend. “Priyanka didn’t want [the design] to be on-the-nose Indian, but she also knew how to make it uniquely Indian in certain ways, and Melissa was interpreting and hearing all of it.”
The Indian decor references were ultimately inspired by what Bowers terms, “Indo Deco,” the Art Deco period in India, of which Mumbai is a primary example—the city has the largest collection of Art Deco buildings after South Beach.
At Sona, the front dining area has a hand-plastered wall dotted with small medallion mirrors from India, in homage to women in rural parts of the country who make meticulously decorated mud huts. The rest of the walls are hand-done Venetian plaster that are painted a delicate blush, inspired by the pink tones of Art Deco Mumbai. Plus, as Bowers says, “People look better against this color.” (Prepare to see the Instagram proof.) Thonet bentwood bistro chairs, a bench with individual round cushions, brass-bottomed black-and-white upholstered poufs, angular couches, and eggplant leather banquettes provide the seating, while glowing arched mirrors and miniature table lamps upholstered with Indian fabric give a subtle nod to the essence of Indian design.
“I did a virtual shopping tour with Ashni Desai who is a designer in India that’s a friend of Maneesh’s,” says Bowers. “We were able to pull from textiles, and the door handles on the entry are cobras from India.”
The heart of the space is the lilac marble-topped bar, which sits between the front and back dining rooms, with a central brass and ribbed glass tower behind it. “The bar itself was this tower that came from my first experiences in New York, at the Four Seasons bar, where liquor comes from the center. It’s not like a typical bar, where it’s all shelves against the wall,” says Bowers.
Artwork displayed throughout the space, which will rotate a few times a year, is curated by Priyanka Mathew of Sunderlande Art Agency, which specializes in modern South Asian art. “It really gives us a lot of pride to showcase contemporary Indian artists,” says Goyal, who notes that many people are only familiar with more traditional Indian art and that this is an opportunity to expose guests to the country’s modern art scene. The music is by DJ Rekha, who is credited with bringing Bhangra and modern South Asian music to the U.S. The Thonet chairs made it to the covered and heated outdoor space, which has clear plastic dividers between linen-clad tables.
The name Sona, which means gold in Hindi, provided further design inspiration. “Once that little puzzle piece was finished, all the fine-tuning came together,” says Bowers. The columns in the space are a soft gold and chair cushions are covered in a black and gold textile from India.
Sona was actually suggested as the name by Chopra Jonas’s husband Nick Jonas, after a tasting of Chef Nayak’s food. “We were grappling with a list of names, none of which were speaking to us,” recalls Goyal. “And then from the corner of the table, from a small kind of voice, Nick Jonas said, ‘What about Sona?’
And we all kind of look at Nick, and Priyanka looks at Nick, and says, ‘First, amazing, how do you even know that word?’ And he remembers it from their wedding, because he remembers gold and Sona being said, because obviously he was thrown into the culture in a big way.”
Like the design, the food at Sona aims to be unexpected. “When we ate Hari’s food and it was so clean and light and beautiful and I was like, ‘Wow people just don’t realize that this is what Indian food is and can be,” says Rabin. Consequently, you won’t find basic curries and samosas on the menu, which doesn’t focus on any one region’s cuisine. Instead, look for dishes like Tandoor Roasted Beets with cumin, Stracciatella and chat masala hazelnuts; Crab Puri and Caviar with Maryland crab and Sterling caviar; Aged Cheddar Dosa with Turmeric Edamame Mash and Coconut Chutney; and Floyd’s Goan Fish Curry with coconut seafood broth, kokum, and red rice. That last dish is in honor of ground-breaking Indian chef Floyd Cardoz, who passed away from COVID-19 last year.
“Floyd’s passing was almost exactly one year ago this week,” says Goyal. “He was the pioneer of Indian food in this country, and he was a friend of mine and he was a friend and mentor to Chef Nayak. And he was so supportive of this project, of Sona. And given his untimely passing, it just felt right.
Also, it felt right because we are steps away from where Tabla [where Cardoz was executive chef for many years] once stood. And so we asked if we could honor him in some way and we got the blessing from [Cardoz’s wife] Barkha to do so.”
The cocktail program, led by mixologist Johnny Swet, is equally innovative, with an extensive gin & tonic menu, as well as a clever play on one of India’s most popular street foods, pani puri (also known as gol gappa). Chopra Jonas had the idea to serve a boozed up version of the snack, which is made from a crispy shell (puri) that’s typically filled with a spicy water (pani) and some kind of legume or vegetable.
At Sona, you can order crunchy puris to be filled with beet-infused vodka or cilantro and cumin tequila, creating an entirely new way to have your bar snacks and spirits at the same time. This iteration exemplifies how Sona seeks to offer a dynamic, unexpected experience. As Goyal puts it, "We want to create the next generation of what an Indian restaurant can be."