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.

Even though my own luck was pretty good with the service--helped out by the way I always ordered appetizers--I did find a couple of Everest dishes I'd skip in the future: "Machhako Tarkari" ($10.95) is the fish curry, bite-size pieces of boneless fish coated in a lentil-flour batter and fried. The mustard-curry sauce was good, but the fish was dry and overcooked. Pushing it away, I took a good look at the pictures of snow-capped Himalayan mountains that decorate the place, and slapped myself on the forehead: No oceans. (For the same reason I skipped the shrimp curry, $10.95.) Chicken chou-chau ($6.95) could be called Nepali chicken lo mein, but I found it too spare for my taste; the plain wheat noodles and spiced chicken seemed in need of a sauce. I ordered a plain potato curry ($6.50) that came with two pieces of puri, but found that incredibly bland, too. Also, and maybe it's just cabin fever talking, I'm pretty sure that the tomato on the plate was mocking me. It was one of those tasteless winter tomatoes, lightly cooked, defiant in a starchy, joyless, sneering way.

Looking back, though, what I treasured most from the experience was thinking about the mountains. I mean, imagine what miracles could be worked at local restaurants by merely setting some ingredients a far way off, down a mountain, on some plains. Like winter tomatoes, stale rolls, watery beer, sugary salad dressings, or those other everyday plagues. Who would climb down to get them?

TABLEHOPPING:

TEJAS LUV: The last, last time I went to Tejas, I didn't feel the love: Awkwardly made dishes, clumsy service, woe is me. But I went again a few weeks ago for lunch, and the place was humming along like a springtime tryst. The signature tortilla soup ($5.95) had tasty pieces of grilled chicken, strips of tortilla, fresh avocado slices, and Monterey jack cheese united by a pleasantly concentrated chicken broth. Delicious. I had a special of grilled pork in a tomatillo sauce, and it was smoky, potent, tender: perfect in every way. Woo-hoo! The service was attentive but discreet, and my hot apple cider had a big, pretty dried apple slice floating in it. Swoon.

Actually, I was so impressed that I came home and poked around the Tejas Web site for a while, where they have actually posted the recipe for that lovely soup: www.tejasrestaurant.com/recipe4.htm.When I discovered that if you tell them you've read their online newsletter, The Whole Enchilada, you get a free bottle of Tejas salsa, well, I knew the love was true. A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but salsa is a girl's best friend. Tejas, 3910 W. 50th St., Edina; (952) 926-0800.

RUMORMONGERS: Will the La Belle Vie crew ever give up the dirt on where we can expect their much anticipated new downtown Minneapolis restaurant?

Not to me, they won't.

"As soon as we're ready, you'll be the first to know," lies Tim McKee, co-owner of Minnesota's most critically acclaimed (at least by me) restaurant. For the thousandth time. "We're still trying to pull it together. We don't want to talk about it and have it not happen. You food writers sure are a persistent bunch. It's like you have it on your calendar or something." Or something.

So I told McKee the latest rumor I've heard: upscale Spanish, in the Warehouse District. "That one's good," mused McKee. "I love hearing what I'm doing. The last one I heard was that I'm going into Milwaukee Depot, with the ice skating." So: Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick? Colonel Mustard in the music room with the pistol? No one can say for sure.

McKee will disclose that he and a whole host of local chefs are all going off to New York in April to cook for a Friends of James Beard event, where McKee is doing a fish course. So if your birthday is April 10, better celebrate early: Half the chefs in town will be wielding their knives in the Big Apple, not our rumor-filled Minne-one. Honorees include chefs from Goodfellow's, D'Amico Cucina, Zander, Café Brenda, and the Dakota. Then again, maybe that's the night to try to bribe my way into a certain restaurant's inner offices.

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