By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 4, 2009
** (out of four)
Sound Check: 69 decibels (Conversation is easy)
Restaurant critics are paid to spill the beans, not keep secrets. Yet after every meal at Himalayan Heritage, a recent Nepalese-Indian addition to Adams Morgan, I've been tempted not to tell anyone about the place for fear that praise might turn it into something other than what it has been since it quietly opened last September: an endearing neighborhood restaurant.
Its charms unfold swiftly, beginning at the door, where staff members welcome you as if you're a regular in good standing even if it's your maiden visit. You might not be dressed up, but they are, in colorful saris or smart suits. The hosts' smiles seem to spring from a desire to please rather than in response to paying customers in a tough economy.
Everywhere you turn in the small dining room, there's something to admire (and nothing to remind you of its Italian-accented predecessor, San Marco). A handsome thangka painting depicting Buddhist deities fills the rear wall. Booth-style seating to one side is made intimate with pillows and a little half-roof. By day, light pours through the windows; at dinner, lanterns suspended from a gold-colored ceiling illuminate the space.
There's no bread basket at Himalayan Heritage, but there is something to snack on while you look over the menu: a little plate of bright green soybeans tossed with chopped tomato and cilantro, and spiked with red chili and mustard oil, the latter a Nepalese staple. The racy flavors signal good things to come. And they do.
One of the three owners behind this warm retreat is Purna Gurung, who came from suburban Dallas and a restaurant called Himalayan Aroma in Irving, Tex., to help two Washington friends open shop here. Gurung says the trio chose Adams Morgan after exploring the neighborhood and getting a good price on the vacant corner space. "Lots of bars," he accurately summed up the area, and "not much fine dining." The all-Nepalese staff includes chef Arjun Ranabhat, 26, whose experience runs to stints in a Sheraton hotel in India, aboard a Carnival Cruise ship and at an Indian restaurant in San Jose. To better "catch the market," Gurung and company decided to offer both Indian and Nepalese dishes, the former being more familiar to the general public.
The two cuisines have a lot in common. Both feature ginger, garlic, cumin and coriander. Both play up rice as a starch, and both involve curries. But the food of Nepal, a country sandwiched between India and China, distinguishes itself in a few ways. Nepal's frigid winter weather means a lot of food is dried or otherwise preserved when it's harvested. Yak butter is the fat of choice, but "it's hard to get here," says Gurung, whose kitchen uses olive oil instead.
Momo, or dumplings, make a pleasing introduction to Nepalese food. Their fluted wrappers contain minced chicken or vegetables enhanced with ginger and garlic (the addition of olive oil makes the momo juicy). Those with a taste for heat should order No. 60 on the menu, steamed chicken dumplings streaked red with a sauce of chili peppers.
The single best dish I've tried is meatless. Gobi Manchurian puts cauliflower on a pedestal, dipping the commonplace vegetable in batter, deep-frying it, then tossing the pieces in garlic, catsup and chilies. The result is a little sweet, a little zingy and pretty addictive. Among the kitchen's other lures are chickpeas brightened with lemon zest, onion rings as delicate as they come, and potatoes and green beans draped in onion gravy. The vegetable samosas are light and fragrant. Come to think of it, a person could be happy hewing to a vegetarian path for the entire meal here.
But that would mean missing out on the marinated, deep-fried chicken fired up with green chilis and onions, and that would be a shame. Goat curry is a bit chewy, but I like its robust onion sauce, and if the duck in an entree called hansh bhtuwa is bony, its spicy cloak of gravy is reason to order more nan for swabbing. The owners have installed a tandoor in the kitchen, and from that clay oven come some marvelous thin, oval-shaped breads. Indeed, the side dishes at Himalayan Heritage are all quite good, be they the pickled vegetables or the glossy rice speckled with fennel seeds.
If you live within two miles of the restaurant, you can explore these dishes in the comfort of home; Himalayan Heritage offers delivery, and it's free.
Slips here and there remind me that this package comes with a few flaws. Sag paneer has Morton's written all over it: The spinach dish is packed with salt. And don't bother fishing here. Goan curry made with tilapia is one of a few drags. Easier to enjoy: prawns swabbed with ginger and garlic and fried to a delicate crisp. A spritz of lime at the table gives the starter even more pizazz.
The desserts I tend to head for in Indian restaurants are the desserts I most enjoy here. Grated carrots cooked in ghee (clarified butter), milk and sugar, then mixed with cashew paste are a sweet way to pack some beta carotene into the diet. The lightly fermented milk balls known as gulab jamun are drenched in a syrup flavored with cinnamon and cardamom: doughnut holes via India.
When books or plays are well received by reviewers, they tend to land atop bestseller lists or fill theaters. When a restaurant gets a nod from critics, anything can happen. In the best scenario, the staff maintains the good work. In other cases (and this is particularly true of small, independently owned restaurants), success overwhelms the establishment as it tries to keep up with new demand and expectations.
As young as it is, I have a hunch that Himalayan Heritage can handle a few extra guests.
Open: lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. No smoking. Street parking. Prices: appetizers $3.25 to $6.99, entrees $8.99 to $17.95, weekday lunch buffet $8.99.