Launching a fancy restaurant drenched in global star power is no picnic in a pandemic.
Sona at 36 E. 20th St., drawing on the popularity of creative consultant Priyanka Chopra Jonas, opens Friday under still-tight restrictions: 50 percent seating capacity, no service at the bar and an 11 p.m. curfew.
And it opens without its multimedia star attraction on hand to join in the festivities. Although actress Chopra Jonas, 38, posted on Instagram earlier this month, “I can’t wait to see you there!,” Sona’s publicist told The Post she won’t make tomorrow’s opening. Sona’s majority owner, entrepreneur Maneesh Goyal, 45, explained, “She hopes to be there a lot but she’s spending the next months in London shooting a series and it depends on her schedule.”
So, her 61.4 million Instagram followers might wait to see the TV and film star’s fabulous face in the flesh at Sona. Even so, Goyal, operating partner David Rabin and chef Hari Nayak, 47, take the plunge confident in their mission.
Rabin said, “I was concerned, of course,” about the timing. But he cited the booming success of nearby American Bar, a place he recently launched in the West Village. “We just have to stay mindful of staff and customer compliance,” when it comes to following the state’s mandates, he said. “New Yorkers I think inherently want to do the right thing and get through this.”
Hiring for Sona was a challenge, “as it was tightening up with all the restaurants gearing up to return, but we were out early and found some strong people,” he added.
Restaurants owned or fronted by celebrities can be fiascos, like Britney Spears’ laugh-riot, short-lived Nyla, or long-running hits, like Robert De Niro’s Nobu – a place that helped inspire Goyal’s vision for Sona. He said he yearned to create a place that would do “what Nobu did for Japanese food, make it a destination for great cuisine and of the moment.”
Chopra Jonas got the eatery itch on top of a career that’s included acting roles in movies such as the Oscar-nominated “The White Tiger” and TV series “Quantico,” a Miss World pageant title, a best-selling memoir, work with UNICEF on social and environmental causes, her own production company, and marriage to pop star and actor Nick Jonas. She was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine and one of the world’s 100 most powerful women by Forbes.
But her role at Sona is harder to pin down. “Her fingerprints are all over Sona,” Goyal said. Her role is to “make the space, the food and the music a global Indian experience,” said Goyal, who’s taking the restaurant plunge for the first time.
The chef, Indian-born Hari Nayak, exemplifies the globe-trotting, entrepreneurial toque – he’s launched restaurants everywhere, from Bengaluru, India, to Hoboken, NJ, and authored seven cookbooks.
The key on-the-ground figure at Sona might be respected New York restaurant and nightlife operator Rabin, whose places include the Lambs Club and the Skylark. He modestly said, “I’m an operating partner with Maneesh. My biggest contribution was a pre-existing relationship with our designer, Melissa Bowers. She developed a nice rapport with Priyanka.”
Goyal, who’s friends with both Rabin and Chopra Jonas, calls himself the project’s “initiator.” A few years ago, he and Rabin reached out to Nayak to oversee the kitchen and called in Chopra Jonas. As Goyal recalled, the star said she’d get involved, but, “not until I try the food. And then I want my mom to try the food.” They arranged for a tasting – and Sona was born. Construction started in late 2019 with plans for a summer 2020 opening, but had to pause for the citywide shutdown.
Sona faces competition from the city’s cresting wave of fine Indian restaurants that are varied and sophisticated. Chopra Jonas described Sona’s culinary approach on Instagram as, “the very embodiment of timeless India and the [flavors] I grew up with,” and everything from Mumbai street food to Goa’s beachy flavors.
Although the food wasn’t available to taste before the opening, it sounds like India’s Greatest Hits as tweaked by Nayak with a few of Chopra Jonas’ personal favorites. “A dish with Portuguese influence from Goa, street food, butter chicken from the north,” Goyal said. He noted there will be more seasonal variations that are usually found in Indian restaurants, but he stressed, “It is Indian – not fusion.”
Sona’s menu is still a work in progress. But small plates are to include goat cheese and spinach samosas with red chili dip, popcorn prawns with mango pickle aioli and tandoor roasted beets; main courses include Goan fish curry with coconut seafood broth and butter chicken with charcoal smoked tikka.
It’ll all be served in a pair of romantic, white-tablecloth dining rooms separated by a lounge as designed by Bowers, and they’ll have 16 outdoor seats as well. “Sona” means gold in Hindi and there’s plenty of it in wall coverings, columns and mellow lighting meant to evoke the late years of the Raj.
Chopra Jonas Zoomed into a Hindi prayer blessing ceremony for the restaurant on Monday. It will take more than grace to see Sona through the current crisis – but Goyal’s not worried. He cheered on Instagram, “Here we go!”