Mountain Minimalism

Everest on Grand
1276 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 696-1666;www.hotmomo.com
Hours: lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; buffet available weekdays; dinner 5:00-9:00 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5:00-8:00 p.m. Sunday

 

There's a good reason Nepali food isn't as profoundly spiced as Indian food: If you had to walk down a mountainside to pick up your nutmeg, and then climb it back up again, you'd be pretty sparing too. That's how Padam Sharma, owner of the new Nepali and Tibetan restaurant on Grand Avenue, explains it. "Our country is situated in the mountainous country between India and China, and people have to carry all the spices up from the plains with them. That is why in Nepali cooking, we minimize the use of spices. The main ingredient is up front, and the spices are behind."

And that, my friends, wins my award for handiest quote of the last two years. I had been wondering and wondering how exactly to describe the difference between Indian food and Nepali food, and the closest I had gotten was to ask you to imagine Indian food as prepared by a restaurant like the Birchwood: the food speaking, above all, of the just-made and the fresh. But it's the mountains.

Order the restaurant's signature dish, fat little steamed dumplings called momos, and you'll see it for yourself. The veggie momos are made with little hand-chopped chunks of sautéed cabbage and onion, the meat ones filled with a ginger-tinged blend of pork and turkey. Both glisten in their translucent wrappers fatly, irresistibly. They're available either in a generous half-order ($3.50 veggie; $3.95 meat) or an entrée-size full order ($5.95/$6.95), and you can even get them pan-fried in butter, which gives them a crisp, dark-brown side and (as is always the case with butter) makes them even better. They're served with some of Everest's homemade chutneys--chunky, lumpy, fresh-tasting blends that put all those jarred chutneys I keep seeing at local Indian restaurants to shame.

Once, I ordered the momo soup ($1.95), assuming there would be momos floating in it. Instead what arrived was a bowl of potent clear broth, swimming with garlic, ginger, and scallions. Sharma explained to me that traditionally momo soup is made from the liquid that remains in the pot once you steam a load of momos, hence the name. But instead his restaurant makes it from scratch. A traditional Nepali light meal would be momos and momo soup, dunk the momos in the soup, voilà.

The restaurant also makes good homemade vegetarian samosas ($2.95) and an interesting dish called sekuwa, lamb ($6.95) or chicken ($5.95) rubbed with spices and grilled on skewers, then combined with chopped cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes. It seems distinctly south Asian, and besides being tasty is a good example of the connections between Nepali and southern Chinese cooking.

However, most of the best dishes are more like spare renditions of familiar Indian preparations: I loved the saag (sautéed greens, $7.95). It was so simple and so good, just hot, perfectly prepared fresh-leaf spinach quickly cooked and tossed with golden slices of ginger and slivers of garlic. It reminded me of something you'd find at perhaps Ristorante Luci or Pane Vino Dolce and bore little resemblance to the viscous saag paneer lurking at every Indian restaurant in town. I also liked bhanta ($7.95), tender pieces of eggplant cloaked in a silky, musky curry, tossed with potatoes. The best meat curry I tried was lamb ($9.95) with a thick, tomato-based sauce. It was potent, dry, and chewy, not the long-cooked, soft stew I was expecting.

Expectations do play a big part in anyone's first experience with a restaurant, and I was surprised to find that nearly everyone I brought to Everest on Grand compared it, unfavorably, to the north Indian restaurants we're blessed with hereabouts. Don't come here expecting the rich butter curries, potent nut sauces, and vast tandoori platters you might have gotten used to. Everest has much more of a quiet, small-planet, family-table sort of vibe. I was happiest with the restaurant when I ordered the "daal-bhaat," complete meals from the back page of the menu. You get two curries, rice, dal (the all-purpose lentil soup, sauce, and dip), chutney (here called achar), and dessert, all in a series of festive little dishes. (Prices for these complete meals range from $11.95 for two vegetarian curries to $14.95.)

I always got bread, like buttery, deep-fried poori ($1.95), or small, fresh rounds of roti (95 cents), because I kept working with the model of Indian food. Padam Sharma, however, explained that while wheat breads are becoming more popular in Nepal and Tibet, traditional Nepali food habits are closer to the Chinese tradition, using the curries as a seasoning for the main dish, the rice. "The idea is to take your dal, your curries, your chutneys, and mix it all up on the rice so the proportion tastes right to you," says Sharma. "But the important thing is the rice."

I was interested to hear that, because I had noted again and again how fresh, how tender, and how outsize the grains of basmati rice served at Everest are. Sharma says that they get this rice from a special Chicago supplier, and, because basmati rice is so prone to drying out, they cook it to order. So that's why it takes so long to get served here! I had noted that service was a little pokey, but chalked it up to new-restaurant blues. In fact, Sharma says, I'm lucky I wasn't there the weekend before, when waits for tables exceeded an hour. "We don't store anything hot," explains Sharma, "Food that is kept hot loses its flavor, so we cook to order. But we are working on improving that process." So be forewarned.

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