As restaurant mascots go, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a catchier one than “Rocky,” the charm at one of the best new restaurants in Northern Virginia.
The beast shares its stage with a beauty — the food — and a menu that shrugs off supply chain issues with more than 30 choices. Gurung and Magar come to the project from the very good Royal Nepal in Alexandria, which they left in search of bigger quarters. It took me all of one visit to fall under the spell of the place, which rolled out in December and greets diners with the traditional sel roti, rings of fried rice-flour bread served with turmeric-colored radish batons. Cross a doughnut with a bagel and you get an idea of what to expect of the crisp-chewy festival snack.
Every other table seems to be dressed with momos. Make sure you ask for some of these steamed dumplings, too. They show up as eight supple wonders on the rim of a bowl containing garlic-laced roasted tomato sauce, furrowed white triangles so thin you can see the outline of their fillings. There are five from which to choose. The restaurant’s theme has me springing for ground yak, deftly seasoned with coriander, cumin and garam masala so you can still appreciate the juicy texture and delicate beefy flavor of the mountain cattle.
Chow mein is another famous street food to explore, and a reminder that China is a neighbor to the north of the landlocked Nepal. Thin yellow wheat noodles arrive with a confetti of scallions, red cabbage, carrots and other vegetables, each bite smoky from the wok and splashed with sweet-salty oyster sauce (or mushroom sauce on request). The sublime balancing act keeps you returning to the dish even as other plates start crowding the table.
If some of the attendants seem especially engaged, it could be because both chefs are inclined to run food out from the kitchen, particularly when they’re down a server, but any time they’re free. “We don’t want to compromise on service,” says Gurung, who appreciates getting “instant reviews” from customers. (When some diners told him they liked his biryani save for the dried fruit on top, he omitted the garnish, which customers can still get if they ask.)
Pick a meat and you’re likely to find it starring as a first course. Luscious chunks of pork, crisp from their time in a clay oven, resonate with mustard oil, ginger and garlic. (The tongue buzz comes from Sichuan peppercorns.) Chicken stir-fried with purple onion and bell peppers is finished with a chile sauce, sweetened with ketchup, that leaves a thrilling wake of heat. The appetizers cost a modest $10 on average but are the size of main courses. Those who don’t eat meat are accorded the same generous helpings. Samosa chat is big enough for a small party.
Overwhelmed by choices? Consider the Nepali set meal. For $25, you get a taste of four selections delivered on a slender wooden tray: a choice of entree — go for the succulent goat, seemingly free of bones and pungent with cilantro — and a trio of side dishes, including a vibrant cauliflower curry and stir-fried mustard greens.
Most of the food is so riveting, you find yourself oversampling. (Insert raised hand.) “Very spicy,” the menu warns about pork curry, whose green and red Thai chile heat permeates each eye-popping morsel. But even the tamer yak stew, warm with cumin and garam masala and filled out with zucchini, sustains interest to the end.
The owners put diners on a pedestal in just about every way imaginable. The 90 or so seats inside include booths, circular tables (hello, book clubbers!) and a spot for 10 near a hearth, plus a stack of booster seats near the entrance that signals diners of all ages are welcome. Floating near the Himalaya-high ceiling are fabric panels that do their best to sponge the sound from a crowd and concrete floors below. That colorful cotton napkin in your lap? Jarga’s father, a tailor, is responsible for the handmade Dhaka.
The cocktail and wine lists look like compilations you’d find at a hot spot in Washington; their author, Jarga, is a veteran of the cruise industry, where he cooked, and the Watergate Hotel, where he tended bar. Some like it hot, and for them there’s Amilo Piro, tequila and triple sec refreshed with lime and grapefruit — just $8 at happy hour.
Himalayan Wild Yak might be young, but it performs like an old pro.
The restaurant opened with butter chicken on its menu but slowly added more Indian dishes as the owners noticed Indian diners filling most of their seats. Chana masala thrums with ginger and garlic paste, while lamb korma — one of the lightest and most luscious versions around — features soft bites of meat in a dark golden gravy thickened with yogurt and cashew paste. Blistered in the tandoor, the fluffy naan helps erase the last of any sauce.
If you’re looking to winnow some choices, pass on the oily fried kale, weighed down with sweet yogurt, the bland black dal included in the set meal, and the warm chocolate cake. The last is fine, but kurauni is the more traditional Nepalese ending. Among the kitchen’s more labor-intensive dishes, this one involves reducing milk over low heat for five or more hours before adding saffron, cardamom powder and a touch of sugar. The surface of the pleasantly grainy confection pops with crimson pomegranate seeds.
My modus operandi is to restrain myself enough in the dining room to take home leftovers. Trust me, chow mein and momos are a welcome sight when it’s midnight and your stomach growls for attention.
It should come as no surprise that Himalayan Wild Yak packs whatever you take away in reusable biodegradable green bags. From Rocky to recycling, the restaurant puts customers first.
Himalayan Wild Yak
22885 Brambleton Plaza, Ashburn, Va. 703-760-3710. himalayanwildyak.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining and takeout and delivery daily from noon to 9:30 p.m. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $15, main courses $12 to $35 (biryani for two). Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff wear masks and are vaccinated.