Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A New Taste of the Himalayas

Napa is not known for its Asian food selection.  In recent years, though, we have welcomed an influx of Thai, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Indian, and Japanese restaurants aiming to break out of the stereotypical mold for "ethnic restaurants" with modern ambience, original menus, and contemporary presentations.  Taste of the Himalayas, which opened June 18th, is the latest addition to this restaurant category... and one I am supremely excited about.

The name is familiar to wine country folks--there is a Taste of the Himalayas on the Sonoma Square that has been quenching our curry thirst since 2003.  This Napa outpost is something a little bit different.  One of the original partners in the Sonoma TotH, Mr. Pemba Sherpa, put himself through culinary school and branched out on his own to open a more refined, contemporary Himalayan restaurant in Sausalito last fall; this Napa spot is his second such venture.  With his girlfriend Tenzin Yangchen, he is pushing the envelope for Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine in the former Old Adobe building at the intersection of Soscol Avenue and Silverado Trail.
(Possibly) original 1860s wall painting,
with 1950s graffiti.

Sherpa says the building (Napa's oldest surviving structure) reminds him of the house he was born in, full of history and possibilities.  Being 31 years old and a tad cash-strapped, Sherpa did much of the construction work himself on the space.  He ripped out the stinky liquor and nicotine-stained bar, replaced most of the floor and walls with new materials, whitewashed everything anew, and installed modern lighting along the dark wood rafters. In the course of his renovation, he found lots of old wall paintings in various states of decrepitude.  The best preserved one by the front door he kept intact, and if you look closely, you can still see the pencil-scrawled names and 5-digit phone numbers of former patrons... and the hospital.  

The overall look is tastefully clean and contemporary, but still homey.  Comfortable leather chairs, dark wood tables, and ornate Nepalese salt and pepper shakers strike a delicate balance between modern and traditional.  Families, friends, and dates would all be equally at home here.

But let's talk about the food, because that's really the most exciting part.  Like most Nepalese restaurants, the menu includes dishes with Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese flavors. Unlike most Nepalese restaurants, the dishes are beautifully presented, free of artificial flavors and colors, and made with fresh organic meats and vegetables from the farmers' market.  Sherpa didn't want to open just another cookiecutter Nepalese restaurant; he wanted to do something different, and raise the bar.  He reinterprets many traditional dishes, enhancing the flavors as well as their visual appeal.  The rice that accompanies all of the curry dishes, for example, is cooked with saffron, cardamom, bay leaf, and cinnamon to create a beautifully fragrant accompaniment that's just as desirable as the main event.

Samosa Chaat
In addition to the expected momos, (excellent) naan, chicken tikka, and tandoori dishes, Sherpa also wants to offer more unusual items like tender goat curry (which he conveniently de-bones in the kitchen), and his interpretation of Tibet's Churi Pama: ground beef with a blue cheese curry sauce, onions, garlic, and bell peppers.  He also has created several original cold salad-type appetizers, since the Nepalese typically only eat salads of cucumber and tomato.  One of the highlights of my first visit was another of his appetizer inventions, the Samosa Chaat--cut up pieces of potato samosa arranged to look like a mountain range, studded with chole (chick peas), julienned apple,  and crunchy sev bits, and capped off with yogurt and a red onion tamarind chutney.  We could not rest until every scrap was gone.

Tandoori shrimp with vermicelli salad.
The seafood is all wild-caught, which means that not everything is available all the time.  The salmon tandoori (which Sherpa told me was one of his favorites) is being swapped out with butterfish for now, until he can find more of the beautiful salmon he had before.  The shrimp tandoori was beautifully cooked, and beautifully presented (no sizzling/overcooking platters here) with a rice vermicelli salad seasoned with sesame oil.

Once he has earned diners' trust, Sherpa wants to start offering even more unusual items, like goat lung, pig feet, and other traditional dishes he grew up making with this father in Namche Bazaar, Nepal (also known as the "Gateway to Mt. Everest").  He also has plans to open a cafe in the front portion of the building in about six months, serving coffee grown on his family's organic coffee plantation in Nepal, beers on tap, as well as casual breakfast and lunch items like "naanwiches" and wraps.  I urged him to consider "naanciatas" as well, topping the gorgeous blistered naan with a cool dressed salad... and please join me in this crusade, because it would be awesome. I feel like I need to take him to Azzurro for the BLT manciata later this summer.

Also on Sherpa's seemingly neverending list of ambitions, making and distributing his own tongba, the Nepalese sake-like alcohol made of millet.  Until that day comes, the restaurant is serving wine and beer, including the Nepalese beer Mustang.

It's hard to imagine a more original addition to Napa.  Get over there and show these guys some love.

Taste of the Himalayas is open seven days a week for dinner, and (for now at least) seven days for lunch; takeout is also available. 376 Soscol Avenue, Napa, (707) 251-3840. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. As we drive by it all the time, we were wondering what was going in there. Did not know it was Napa's oldest building, how interesting! I wish they would fix up some of the structures further south on Soscol, there are some real eyesores!