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Guru-Inspired Restaurants Offer Vegetarian Food With Spiritual Flavor

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | June 17, 2013 11:17am
 Four Queens restaurants are operated by students of Sri Chinmoy.
Guru-Inspired Restaurants Offer Vegetarian Food With Spiritual Flavor
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QUEENS — Eating can be divine.

Four Queens restaurants are offering a unique dining experience by providing vegetarian dishes in a meditative atmosphere, surrounding their patrons with fresh flowers, sitar music and walls painted in peaceful shades of blue.

Operated by students of the late Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual teacher who founded a meditation center in Jamaica in the 1960s, the restaurants serve a variety of meatless dishes.

They all seek to provide a particular spiritual experience associated with the guru’s teachings, the owners of the restaurants said.

The eateries, clustered within a mile of the meditation center in Jamaica Estates, are part of a network of 33 restaurants operated by Chinmoy’s students around the world, including in Bulgaria, France, Germany, Australia, Russia and Japan.

In all, there are nine in the U.S. The four in Queens are Annam Brahma, The Oneness-Fountain-Heart, The Panorama of My Silence-Heart and The Smile of the Beyond. Chinmoy named each of them.

Chinmoy, whose teachings were influenced by Hinduism, was born in Bangladesh and moved to New York in 1964. A poet, painter and sitar player, he advocated for peace, compassion and self-discovery and asked his followers to adopt a vegetarian diet and abstain from alcohol.

He lived in Queens until his death in 2007.

The restaurants play songs that Chinmoy wrote for the sitar and display pictures of him. They also follow his teachings during the process of food preparation.

“We are trying to put love and care into food,” said Manuel Heddache, 29, one of the chefs at The Oneness-Fountain-Heart who said his Indian name is Satya Deepa.

The goal, Deepa said, is to make patrons “feel peaceful.”

“Some people come and sit for three hours with a cup of coffee and just chat. And that’s the kind of atmosphere we want,” Deepa said.

“We want people to leave happier than when they came in, not only because they are happy with the food but also because of the atmosphere of the restaurant.”

Annam Brahma (Sanskrit for “Food is God”), on 164th Street, was the first of the four restaurants.

Serving mostly Indian food, it was founded by John McLaughlin in 1971, who at the time was a Chinmoy’s disciple, said Shephali Burke, 60, one of the current owners who bought the restaurant from McLaughlin in 1974.

Annam Brahma has a gift section with Chinmoy’s books on meditation and spirituality and a separate area enclosed by glass walls with a sofa and a bust of Chinmoy. The owners said he would sit there during his occasional visits to the restaurant.

Patrons can find a range of popular Indian dishes like chapati served with vegetables, masala dosa, Indian dal and samosas.

There are also non-Indian options, including veggie burgers, omelets and sandwiches.

The Oneness-Fountain-Heart on 72nd Avenue features a choice of international dishes, including nachos, vegetarian souvlakis, pasta, lasagna, chipotle kebab and coconut pad thai.

Many items imitate meat dishes by using a soy substitute, such as Boffo Buffalo wings (vegetarian wings with Cajun BBQ sauce), and golden lamb (vegetarian lamb sautéed with walnuts and topped with grilled cheese).

While Annam Brahma and The Oneness-Fountain-Heart are full-service restaurants, The Panorama of My Silence-Heart and The Smile of the Beyond, both on Parsons Boulevard, are coffee shops.

The Smile of the Beyond serves breakfast and lunch.

Panorama Café focuses on salads, sandwiches and burgers.

“We serve vegetarian comfort food,” said Ketan Goldman, 45, a former event planner. He opened the Panorama in 2007, on the advice of Chinmoy, he said.

“At first I was terrified,” said Goldman. “I had no idea what I was doing.” But now he said he feels comfortable cooking and the coffee shop gives him a feeling that he can make a difference.

“If someone comes in, they order something and then they take outside a little bit of the happiness that they get from the experience of being here,” he said.

The signature dishes at the coffee shop include vegetarian Philly cheese steak, eggplant panini and Parsons burrito with black beans, homemade salsa, cheese and soy beef or chicken.

The coffee shop is also a stage for local artists. The venue hosts live music events, poetry readings and art exbihions.

It’s also a place where Ashrita Furman, who runs a nearby Guru Health Foods store and was also a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, has broken more that 40 of his numerous Guinness World Records, including eating the most jelly in one minute with chopsticks (16.04 ounces), eating the most grapes in three minutes using a teaspoon (151 grapes) and crushing the most eggs within one minute using his head (80).

The restaurants attract peope who are not necessarily vegetarian. “I love the food and I like the atmosphere,” said Sandra Bradford, 55, a NYC Transit Authority employee, who lives in Jamaica.

Bradford, who doesn’t eat pork or beef, but eats fish and chicken, comes regularly to Annam Brahma and The Oneness-Fountain-Heart. “They are very friendly and they know me by name,” said Bradford who said her favorite dish is golden lamb.

Rob MacKay of the Queens Economic Development Corporation said the Sri Chinmoy-inspired restaurants enrich the borough’s food diversity.

“They are unique kinds of places,” he said. “It’s sort of another twist of the pretzel in this diverse place that we call Queens.”