There are a few handy rules of thumb involved when it comes to contemplating and assessing a given restaurant: "The better the view, the worse the food" is cardinal. Also, "Never enter a Chinese restaurant where the clientele is at least half Caucasian." Ditto any restaurant at all where the owner peers mournfully from the doorway, or where the menu is bound, laminated, and brightly colored. A more hopeful omen is a queue of normal people (as opposed to out-of-towners in thrall to last year's Zagat) stretching out the vestibule, no red velvet rope in sight, or the sound of recorded flamenco at gentle volume wafting streetward (this last omen is not, incidentally, infallible).
Then there are the non-gustatory intangibles that can have a profound effect on your enjoyment of the food. This is where Taste of the Himalayas comes in. Taste of the Himalayas is a restaurant in lively downtown Berkeley, but as soon as you step in the door, you're in a different, more tranquil world. The dining room, spacious yet intimate, encompasses you in a soothing mango-and-apricot-colored cocoon. Golden goddesses beam from nooks and alcoves. Pumpkin-colored lanterns hang from a sponged-peach ceiling. One wall is adorned with a positively bucolic mural depicting snow-capped mountains, cerulean lakes, pagodas, young lovers, and an elephant god or two. Mandala-esque tilework accents the walls and light fixtures, and transcendent temple music sets the tone for a relaxing meal.
The restaurant is co-owned and -operated by Rajen Thapa, a native of India who moved to Nepal to be a teacher and ended up building a school where some of the nation's neglected children could get an education. After moving to Berkeley five years ago, Thapa managed the Kurry Klub and then opened Taste of the Himalayas (an East Bay counterpart to the popular SF/Sonoma establishments) in the same location, not only as a way to celebrate his ancestral homeland's native cookery but to raise funds for his struggling school back home. Happily, the restaurant is culinarily successful on its own merits, preparing and serving dishes that for the most part live up to its soulful setting.
After being seated in high-backed, intricately carved near-cathedras at a table set with platters and flatware of great individuality, we snacked on a platter of momos, the savory steamed dumplings that are to Tibet what pelmeni is to Russia or gyoza is to Japan. Taste of the Himalayas' version encloses a snappy filling of onion, coriander, and minced lamb in a delicate casing that exploded with flavor when I bit into it. A silky, bisque-like tomato dipping sauce laced with cumin accompanied this stellar treat. (Vegetarian and chicken momos are available as well.) Pakora, one of many Indian dishes on the menu, was a less successful meal-opener — strands of onion and cabbage battered and fried into big globs of greasy starch — but another chutney, this one a bright, jazzy distillation of mint and spice, made up for it.
Despite (or because of) its impeccable presentation in a burnished pewter tureen, the macha ko tarkari (Nepalese fish curry) was a disappointment, featuring chunks of overcooked, taste-free salmon and a decidedly unassertive curry sauce. But another Indian dish, vindaloo, is one of the restaurant's standout entrées. This usually fiery stew, which was brought to Goa by the Portuguese and introduced the subcontinent to the New World's potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers, is transformed here into essential comfort food, rich and soothing, with big shards of chicken and tender potato doused in a hearty, deep-crimson gravy with just an undertone of citrus, onion, and spice.
Taste of the Himalayas also makes good use of the tandoor, the charcoal-fired clay oven from which chicken, lamb, or seafood emerge tender and smoky (presuming the chef knows what she's doing). We opted for the Mixed Tandoor assortment, which arrived at the table sizzling away on a broad wooden platter in a magnificent cloud of fragrant steam. Perfectly al dente peppers, carrots, and onions and a crowning bouquet of herbs made a colorful backdrop for the moist, smoky, disjointed chicken, chunks of slightly overdone lamb, and half a dozen plump, sweet jumbo prawns. The Himalayan biryani is another extravaganza, this one a paella-like array of chicken, lamb, prawns, farmers cheese, peas, cauliflower, carrots, snap peas, potatoes, cashews, string beans, lots of flavor-absorbing basmati rice, and a gingery, mildly incendiary spice mix that gave the dish a pleasant afterglow.
The housemade cucumber-yogurt raita sauce is nothing special, the lentil soup is watery and taste-deprived, and the rice pudding is remarkably flavorless, but two other side dishes are well worth ordering. The onion naan is like a really good slice of pizza: hot and chewy from the oven with a veneer of olive oil and an inner layer of sautéed red onions; it's a meal in itself. It's surprisingly delectable with the housemade mango chutney, a sweet, spicy delight with big chunks of fruit and the sweet heat of fresh ginger.
Taste of the Himalayas offers vegetarians plenty of dining options. Starters include the pakora and the vegetable momos (filled with cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, cashews, onion, cilantro, and cheese), as well as samosas, papad (lentil wafers), and a vegetable salad with honey dressing. Among the entrées are malai kofta (cheese-nut-potato balls in cream sauce), a vegetable biryani, and ten vegetable curries (potato-cauliflower, snap pea-potato, spinach-tofu, garbanzo bean, eggplant-potato, okra-onion, pea-mushroom, pea-paneer, spinach-paneer, and mixed vegetable), seven of them vegan-appropriate. And don't forget the mango chutney and naan.
The wine list includes a dozen spice-friendly vintages (including a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc from India's Sula Vineyards, the winery started a decade ago by Stanford grad Rajeev Samant), all of them available by the glass. The restaurant also stocks a nice selection of beers from the region: Taj Mahal, Sikkim's Himalayan Blue, the blessedly named Karma, and (best of all) Yeti Special Export Lager with its totally cool Abominable Snowman label. They make a nice, crisp contrast to the cuisine's complex, spicy flavors.
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