Guiltless Indulgence 

A kaleidoscope of spices give Kathmandu's healthy cuisine zing.

One day after gorging ourselves at a traditionally nerve-jangling, high-starch, all-beige Thanksgiving, it was a relief on several levels to enter the tranquil surroundings of Kathmandu, a cozy Nepalese-Tibetan restaurant on Albany's Solano Avenue. Here, bright flavors, light textures, and a rainbow of savory vegetation are not only delectable in themselves, they serve as a bracing and salubrious antidote to the heavy, numbing excesses of the holiday season. Warm, fragrant platters and potions soothe the solstice-wracked corpus. Essence of ginger, garlic, cilantro, wood smoke, mustard, saffron, cumin, and cloves sharpen the dulled palate and invigorate the bloated belly. And the restaurant's positively pastoral ambience (the place maintains a serene decibel level even when its dozen tables are packed with chatty Albanians) is an oasis of Eastern tranquility in our otherwise wireless Western world.

My knowledge of Himalayan cuisine pre-Kathmandu had been more or less limited to the barley gruel with yak butter eaten by Captain Haddock in Tintin in Tibet, so I was relieved and delighted by the spectrum of tastes and textures served on the premises. The restaurant specializes in the cookery of the Newars, the indigenous people of Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, but other cuisines of the general region are proffered as well. Nepal and Tibet share borders with northeastern India, and the restaurant's menu features curries, pickles, basmati rice, grilled lamb, yogurt sauces, flatbreads, lassi drinks, and other specialties associated with the Indian kitchen. But even these dishes are touched with a distinctive pizzazz that turn familiar fare into a whole new culinary experience. This isn't to say that everything on the menu is a singular triumph, however; other offerings are uninspired and similar enough to one another to be just this side of unmemorable.

The appetizers, though, are exemplary. Thukpa is noodle soup with a kick, a traditional Tibetan rejuvenator strewn with tomatoes, celery, squash, and the system-stimulating properties of ginger and garlic. Momo, steamed dumplings, are lighter and chewier than your typical dim sum, with a rich yet simple filling of ground lamb and scallions (chicken and vegetable dumplings are available as well). Moo woo is like a big, thick veggie burger made up of mung beans, falafel, papadam, and half the spices at your local souk, but light and refreshing for all that. Especially memorable is chatamari, an old Newari favorite in which a cloud-like rice-flour crepe is stuffed with potatoes, chicken, nine different varieties of legume, and just enough spice to cleanse the palate. Best of all, though, is haku chewela, a highly sensory experience inadequately described as cold smoked chicken; mustard oil, peppers, scallions, and an unprecedented spectrum of spices levitate the fowl into another, nobler realm.

There's a sameness and a lack of spark to some of the entrées that make them less appealing than the appetizers. Luksha shamdeh (yogurt-marinated lamb curry with potatoes) and emu khaya la (chicken with garlic, ginger, and jwanu, a caraway-like seed), while dissimilar on paper, aren't distinct enough in the execution. A comparable dish, aloo tama bodi (bamboo shoots, black-eyed peas, and potatoes), boasts a sharp, pleasantly sour brown sauce that raises it above the perfunctory. Dall bhat, the classic Nepalese combo platter, features verdant, zippy braised mustard greens and a thick, hearty, spice-laced lentil soup alongside so-so stewed squash, tomatoes, and eggplant; dry tasteless rice; and an unexciting example of flatbread. But the khashi ko shekuwa — marinated charcoal-grilled lamb with tomatoes and scallions — is rich with flavor. An array of condiments (a terrific sour-spicy shredded-carrot preparation, a tomato-based yogurt achar, a tangy yogurt-cilantro dip) nicely complements entrée and appetizer alike.

Dessert options are limited. There's chaku-mari, a moist, dense, honey-scented pound cake, and the far more delectable khir, a subtly sweet rice pudding with a wonderfully ethereal disposition. Studded with coconut, golden raisins, and hints of clove and nutmeg, it's the very definition of comfort food.

Kathmandu's wine list of a dozen vintages is affordable but nothing special, mostly stuff you can pick up at your neighborhood convenience store, and none of them particularly suited to the complex house cuisine. All are available by the glass. A much better option is a steaming pot of chia, the Himalayan tea brewed with hot milk. Fragrant with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, it's spicy as a wedge of pumpkin pie, bracing as an alpine toddy, and perfect on a brisk winter's night. Also yummy is the strawberry lassi, a yogurt concoction that's like a lighter, frothier version of a strawberry milkshake. Cinnamon and banana varieties are available as well.

Vegetarians will of course find plenty to enjoy at Kathmandu, including three kinds of soup; vegetarian dumplings; noodle, rice, and combo platters; and seven vegetarian entrées. Most are prepared without dairy products as well.

Kathmandu itself is an intimate, inviting place, warm and friendly in its welcome, and beautifully decorated with an impressive array of prayer wheels, tapestries, horns, drums, cast-iron goddesses, prayer flags, a ceiling's worth of mandalas, and elegant yet tactile draperies and furniture. The restaurant opened its doors in 1994 as an offshoot of Kathmandu Imports, a Berkeley boutique specializing in Himalayan crafts, jewelry, and antiques. "Ever since we arrived here, my husband Deepak wanted to serve food from our own country and culture," said Lila Singh, the restaurant's owner. "And after the store had been open awhile, that's what we did." Singh, a native of the Nepalese capital that gave the restaurant its name, is proud of her Newari heritage and the cuisine that goes with it. "It's very flavorful, very healthy, very balanced," she said. "In the Newar region there are holidays and festivals all around the year, each with its own special foods, and what we've done is put them together on our menu." What a concept: holiday food you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying. Dig in. 

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