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Tastes of Nepal worth trying


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If what you're expecting from a restaurant called Himalayan Kitchen is a taste of Nepalese cooking, try to get there ASAP.

               

     

 

HIMALAYAN KITCHEN

        1137 11th Ave. » 735-1122
       

Food: ;*;*;*; 1/2

       

Service: ;*;*;*; 1/2

       

Ambience: ;*;*;*

       

Value: ;*;*;*;*

       

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. (lunch in the works) Cost: About $35 to $50 for two without alchohol; BYOB, no corkage fee

       

Ratings compare similar restaurants:
        ;*;*;*;* - excellent
        ;*;*;* - very good; exceeds expectations
        ;*;* - average
        ;* - below average.

       

 

       

Don't be alarmed. This place has already won the hearts of culinary adventurers, and with the amount of traffic coming through, you would think no tinkering with the menu would be necessary. But what you've got in owner Suman Basnet is a pleaser. It's easy to glean that from his effusive apologies when he perceives a dish coming out less than perfect, and the anxiety of a stage parent when it comes to gauging audience appreciation of his baby.

He's taking guests' critiques seriously, though I hope not at the expense of his vision and authenticity.

Already, there is a short list of Himalayan chilis “;with a taste of aloha!”; The dishes of Sherpa shrimp, chicken or paneer (cheese) chili reflect a Chinese sweet-sour legacy, but the touch of pineapple I could live without.

That's not because I'm a food purist. I consider myself a realist. Food trends evolve to reflect exposure to new cultures. But I keep hearing, for instance, this restaurant referred to solely as an Indian restaurant, but it would be sad if, to be liked, it were to become more Indian and less Nepalese, also influenced by its other neighbor, China. The number of cuisines offered in the islands is already limited, so restaurateurs who try something new should be encouraged.

Diners have thus far been those who already like Indian fare, so it's been tougher to get people to try dishes uniquely Himalayan, such as the Everest choeela ($6.95), which I felt compelled to order because our waiter couldn't fathom why it wasn't a top seller. In this meat salad, pieces of tandoori chicken are tossed with lots of onions, slivers of green pepper, chili peppers and spices with a splash of lemon juice. It might have been this touch of citrus and the onions that reminded me of the Thai dish larb. It's one of the more assertive dishes on a generally mellow menu.

Other appetizers were familiar to those who frequent Indian restaurants, such as vegetarian samosas filled with potato, chickpeas and peas. I wanted to try the paneer pakora ($6.95) because it's made from homemade cow's milk cheese. But the cheese is mashed with spices and deep fried, so it's neither obvious that it's cheese nor that it's homemade. But as a creamy fat bomb, yum!

You can skip the papadums ($1.95) if you're ordering aloo dum ($5.95), a papadum (spiced lentil bowl) filled with diced potatoes sauteed with tomato, green onion, raita, cilantro, spices and chili peppers.

THAT THIS particular restaurant is playing to a full house is not so miraculous when you consider that even in its exoticism, this is soul food served from the heart. Many restaurants rely on cans and bottles for elements of their secret sauces, but here you can sense many hands involved in producing food from scratch. You can also sense the centuries of tradition in time-proven combinations of spices.

Two things that distinguish it from comparable food are the scant amount of fat used—I hope this doesn't change—and the prevalence of ginger in the curries, noodles and sauces. It is a carefully placed accent many will not detect, but to me it stood out amidst the more familiar blends of cumin, coriander, garlic, chilies, ghee and cilantro.

Much of the food is served in easy-to-digest form, such as beigan bharta ($11.95), tandoor-roasted eggplant that is sauteed with cilantro, ginger, garlic and spices, pureed to mashable mixes with a small dice of potato, that blends well with plain rice or any of the biryanis ($12.95-$15.95), rice mixed with raisins, cashews and peas.

A meal accompaniment of onion kulcha ($3.95) sounded wonderful. I envisioned dark strips of grilled onion, with cilantro described on the menu. But these were cooked within the naan bread to retain more of their translucent integrity, and with no cilantro in the mix, it wasn't much more exciting than plain naan ($2.50).

The tandoor is also known as a bhatti, named after the Bhatti tribes of the Thar desert. Meat eaters will appreciate this slow-cook grill, in which meats are marinated, oil-free, in yogurt and spices and cooked to tender perfection.

There are options of tandoori chicken ($10.95 half/$16.95 full for leg and thigh meat) or the favored chicken tikka ($12.95, breast meat). You can also choose between cubed lamb (Everest seakwa, $14.95) or the lamb sausage, malai seekh kebab ($14.95). Try them all at once in the mix tandoori grill ($17.95) featuring the tikka, kebab and shrimp. The shrimp is the least interesting, just as it is in a dish of Goa shrimp ($15.95), where it's presented in a soupy coconut curry.

Among heavier dishes are the lamb ($14.95) or chicken bhuna ($12.95), sauteed in a sour cream/garlic sauce. Vegetarians will also be comfortable here with vegetable curries and spinach stews ($10.95 to $11.95).

Home-style Nepalese dishes would include aloo tama bodi ($12.95), a masala curry dish of potatoes, black-eyed peas and bamboo shoots more typical of Chinese cooking. Also reflecting Chinese influence is the mild noodle dish chicken chow chow ($12.95), mixed with shredded tandoori chicken, accented with ginger.

There is much more to explore, and while the crowds continue to clamor, I'd be most likely to show up when they start to dissipate, around 9 p.m.

 

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin.