Sona is the much-anticipated, glamorous collaboration between the actress and restaurateurs Maneesh Goyal and David Rabin. Earlier this month, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas announced her new restaurant, Sona in New York City’s Flatiron District, on Instagram. “Sona is the very embodiment of timeless India and the flavours I grew up with,” she wrote. But the story of Sona, which entrepreneur Maneesh Goyal and restaurateur David Rabin are debuting with creative partner Chopra Jonas on Thursday, starts in Texas four decades ago.
In May 1975, Goyal’s father opened India House in Dallas, which he says was the first Indian restaurant in Texas. Goyal’s father, who also worked at Xerox at the time, started India House because he had a growing family to support: Goyal, who has an older sister and an older brother, was born just a couple months prior. One menu item at Sona is known as India House’s butter chicken. This dish, with charcoal-smoked chicken tikka and tomato gravy, is based on the exact recipe that was used in Dallas.
“This was done with the blessing of his lovely wife, Barkha,” Goyal said. “Floyd was the original pioneer of Indian cuisine in America. Floyd just meant so much to us.” Sona’s menu explores Indian food with regional specificity, traveling from the streets of Mumbai to the beaches of Goa. “Our chef, who is from Mangalore and trained under Daniel Boulud, is super proud to be Indian in his core,” Goyal said of Nayak. “When we started to talk about a menu, he was clear early on: He said we need to represent the entirety of India.”
“If you could dream up what an Indian brasserie would be, that’s the kind of spirit we’re looking for at Sona,” Goyal said. “It’s boisterous yet elegant. … We were relentless about location because we did not want this to be a fringe restaurant. People assess you based on your location. From the first second that people heard we were next to Gramercy Tavern, we were legitimized.”
Chopra Jonas has been “the muse” of Sona throughout the creative process, Rabin said. She’s met with the team to discuss everything from the food to fabric choices to color choices. She’s provided lots of input to Goyal, Rabin, and designer Melissa Bowers about the vibe of the restaurant. “What’s so cool about working with her is that she is unabashedly Indian,” Goyal said of the actress.
“The thing is, my father was raising a family of five, taking a gamble, and opening the first Indian restaurant in the huge state of Texas,” Goyal said. “My mother didn’t drive. So he took her to doctor’s appointments and classes. He was playing double duty. We were trying to live that American life and that American dream, in some respects. I’m coming to it less from a survival standpoint, admittedly, and much more from a pride standpoint.”
“I feel like I have to do this,” he continued. “Where’s a really fun great night out with Indian food? If I can’t answer that question, I have to do something. That question should have an answer.”
Goyal thinks about the grandparents he never knew because they didn’t ever come to America. And he thinks about his cousins, nieces, and nephews. He wants to “build a bridge for that next generation” and help them stay connected with their food and their culture. “I feel pride and I feel obligation,” Goyal said. “That’s what fueling me, but it’s a very different fuel than the fuel my father had.”