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Trekking Through Tibet

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Washington has lost some beloved restaurants this season. Germaine's space remains empty and Mrs. Simpson's is still dark. But while Blue Plate's closing is a great misfortune for its neighborhood, P Street NW is getting a promising restaurant in exchange. Ann Cashion and her partner, John Fulchino, of Cashion's Eat Place, have taken the space for a seafood restaurant/oyster bar they plan to open in the spring. It won't be a polished place with seafood as upscale as Kinkead's or Pesce's, says Cashion. More like the old Crisfield or the tiled raw bars of New Orleans. In the meantime, she's perfecting her crab imperial
– P.C.R.
Cooking can be an art. It can be a science. Sometimes, though, it's merely happenstance.

The first time I lunched at Himalayan Grill, the shagog ngoe-pa was a revelation. This Tibetan and Nepalese dish, which I'd never encountered before, was startlingly delicious, a mingling of fresh-tasting spinach and browned slices of potato flecked with spices – ginger, red pepper, garlic – that detonated one by one in the mouth. When I later brought friends to dinner and urged them to try the shagog ngoe-pa, it landed with a thud. All potatoes and spinach, no spices.

On a third visit, again at lunch, the same spinach with potatoes was glorious once more. Is there a different chef at dinner? I asked the chef himself, who was roaming the dining room and greeting customers. No, he insisted, the kitchen staff doesn't change. Then how come the shagog ngoe-pa is sometimes spicy and other times barely seasoned? The chef explained: When making the dish, one of the cooks reaches for a handful of spices and strews them in the pan. Sometimes he takes a big handful, sometimes small. Maybe the cooks feel more bold at lunchtime. At several lunches, I found most of the food fragrant and abundantly seasoned, just a couple of dishes consistently bland. At my one dinner, though, nothing was spicy, and only three dishes seemed to have any seasoning at all. Next time, I'd tell the waiter when I ordered that the chef shouldn't be afraid to give us the full force of his spice box.

I'd also concentrate on what this restaurant serves that nobody else does – the Tibetan dishes, in particular shagog ngoe-pa and the dumplings called momos. These small steamed dumplings remind you of Tibet's relationship to China; they look like dim sum. They're sheer noodles wrapped around a meat filling and twisted at the top, and while the menu describes them as chicken, they're just as likely to be stuffed with beef kneaded with onion, herbs, garlic and a tame ration of spice. When momos are at their best, the juices permeate the noodle wrapper to make it as flavorful as the filling. Himalayan Grill also makes pan-fried dumplings, called kothey, prettily crimped in half-moon shapes, but their wrappers are chewier and their filling less distinctive.

To turn those dumplings into a balanced meal, examine the list of vegetarian items, the most intriguing of which is a Nepalese bean stew called kwati. Sure, it sounds stolid, and it looks just lumpy brown. But it is made from nine kinds of sprouted beans, cooked in tomato sauce until they are soft and creamy yet still hold their shape. And it's seasoned to build waves of spice on your tongue.

Himalayan Grill has a way with dried legumes. Dal is usually a bland yellow mush, but here, too, the lentils keep their shape and they're brightened with ginger and onion. Does this restaurant really simmer them overnight in a charcoal fire, as the menu boasts? They do taste somehow special. The only disappointment among the legumes was aloo tama bodi – bamboo shoots with potatoes and black-eyed peas – which tasted like a mishmash of canned vegetables.

Besides the Tibetan and Nepalese dishes, the menu lists some from India, though they sideswipe our understanding of Indian spicing. The curries are mere stews, hardly more seasoned than what you'd find on any American stove. Indian classics such as saag paneer are even in need of salt. The dismayingly underseasoned bir yanis – rice with chicken, lamb or shrimp plus vegetables and a few soggy slices of almond – taste as if they'd been moderated for tour-bus groups.

Appetizers range from familiar samosas to Tibetan tidbits of lamb or chicken cut into fine dice and tossed with onions, peppers and moderately spicy mustard oil. A salad of tandoori chicken seems like very tired unseasoned leftovers misdirected to the table. A Tibetan soup listed under the dinner entrees tastes like peppered water with vegetables and gummy boiled dough; when the maitre d' saw that we'd abandoned it after one taste, he insisted on removing it from our bill.

In fact, the only entrees that warrant straying from the Tibetan specialties are the Kashmiri tandoori dishes. Tandoori chicken hasn't a lot of added flavor, but it is bursting with juices under its red-tinged surface. And shish kebab, though inelegantly grainy and chewy lamb, sizzles on the tongue after being thoroughly marinated in yogurt and spices of every hue and intensity.

The real deals – as well as the most reliable cooking, it seems – are at lunch. The $6.95 buffet includes the wonderful dal, and often the kwati as well, along with two more curries, basmati rice, a soggy-looking salad, three chutneys, a well-seasoned raita and dessert – typically a rice pudding that will only confirm the usual low expectations for Indian desserts. Then there are combination plates that team two vegetarian dishes, for example, or lamb curry and lamb kebab, plus breads. The naan and kulcha have been supple and fragrant at lunch, heavier and stiffer at dinner.

The service is intensely well-meaning and a little awkward, which means that busboys snatch your plate as soon as you've paused. You might wait and wait for your appetizers, consuming a basket or two of delicious pappadums with coriander chutney, then have your entrees follow the appetizers within minutes, creating a traffic jam on the table. The dining room, too, is a bit awkward, a second-floor space adapted from what was once a modern American restaurant, with travel posters and T-shirts splayed against the brick walls. The background music sounds like something for yoga class. Still, few restaurants at this low price range offer tablecloths, real napkins and candles. There's a further surprise: a rather nice and very modestly priced wine list.

Himalayan Grill is trying to be more than just another Tibetan restaurant. It celebrated its first anniversary last month with a five-course wine dinner. Who would have thought of teaming shagog ngoe-pa with Bonny Doon Il Pescatore?

Himalayan Grill – 1805 18th St. NW. 202/986-5124. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner daily 4 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted. Separate smoking area. Prices: appetizers $2 to $4.95; lunch entrees $4.95 to $9.95; dinner entrees $6.95 to $13.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $20 to $25 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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