4 Ways to Eat Outside of the Box in Honolulu
Someone out there in restaurant land was doing some unconventional thinking, perhaps just to keep me from getting bored.
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EVERYONE LIKES THE TANDOORI-OVEN BREAD AT HIMALAYAN KITCHEN, HERE WITH A JALAPENO-CILANTRO DIP.
Everyone I know who’s spent any time in Nepal—admittedly, that’s all of two people—insists there was nothing to eat there except rice and dhal (stewed lentils, etc.). “Breakfast dhal, lunch dhal and dinner, surprise, more dhal. I never want to see a bowl of dhal again as long as I live,” said one of them.
I was pleased to find that Himalayan Kitchen has Nepalese and Indian food. Food is no respecter of borders, so I’m sure that Indian-style food gets eaten in Nepal and vice versa. But you will find Web sites on Napalese cuisine complaining that Nepalese restaurants in the West aren’t really Nepalese, they’re Indian.
As anyone who lives in Hawaii knows, cuisines fuse, evolve, accommodate foreign tastes, refuse to respect borders. So it was OK with me whatever cuisine this charming little second-floor eatery wanted to serve, as long as it was good.
We ensconced ourselves on the covered lānai, watching basketball games at Kaimukī Community Park and the traffic stream by on 11th Avenue, idly flipping through the eight-page menu, and getting precisely nowhere.
In a situation in which the menu rings no bells, there’s a simple solution. We asked the waitress, if she was going to eat here once, what would she order?
At first, she played it safe. She suggested the tandoori mixed plate—roasted meats of all descriptions fitting most American tastes. And, she pointed out, people tended to like the flatbreads slapped to the side of the clay tandoori oven and baked.
We were easy. We ordered the tandoori bread in its garlic-and-diced-jalapeño version. Perhaps our adventuresomeness prompted her to come up with something less usual. We ended up ordering two things on her recommendation, even though we had no idea what they were.
The first was a cold appetizer called an Everest choella. Actually, the dish is usually spelled choila. It’s apparently a favorite of the Newar, the indigenous people of the Katmandu Valley, who make it with water buffalo meat. I’d like to try that.
At Himalayan Kitchen, it’s a chicken dish. It looks pretty much like the Nepalese version of a taco salad. Instead of a taco, the shell is made from a papadum, a thin, bean-flour and seed flatbread—imagine it as a giant, spicy cracker. In the middle of the papadum, chicken with onions, peppers, tomatoes, dressed in a pleasant citrus-spice dressing, zingy but not hot. In fact, we loved it, not knowing at the time we were missing out on the water buffalo.
The second dish, which the waitress found for us buried at the back of the menu, was a lamb bhuna, a Northern Indian style of curry. The bhuna didn’t present itself as anything particularly exciting, just a bowl of lumpy yellow stuff with a few sprigs of cilantro on top. But, wow, did it taste exciting, little soft explosions of flavor wrapped around tender morsels of lamb.
Himalayan Kitchen is a startup, with a few rough edges and a welcome earnestness about it. People kept checking to see if we were happy, including a gentleman we eventually realized was one of the partners, Suman Basnet. If I understood him correctly, the bhuna started by slowly cooking down garlic, onions, tomatoes and spices in ghee (clarified butter), then adding layer upon sapid layer of ginger, coriander, pepper, cumin, turmeric, lamb, garam masala. This is what cooking is for—a chorus of divergent flavors all singing different parts of the same tune.
Back to our original order. The naan bread was addictive, lightly spiced—if finely diced jalapeño fits your notion of “lightly.” It came with an even spicier jalapeño-cilantro dipping sauce.
The mixed tandoori grill was fine—no water buffalo, but a couple of spicy shrimp, some black-peppery lamb bits cooked on a skewer until they cohered almost like a sausage, and tender chunks of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, the chicken pieces tender and toothsome, although colored violently red as tandoori restaurants tend to do. All this paled beside the bhuna—almost anything would.
Finally, dessert—mango kulfi, a kind of eggless ice cream that arrived in small cubes the way it apparently would in Nepal. In addition, Basnet described to us a dessert that was some kind of giant hand-molded milk ball. We looked totally dubious, but he brought us one anyway to try. One look at the oddly shaped white ball swimming in whey and my wife said, “I’m lactose intolerant.”
I tried it, and it was innocuous enough. “I think it needs a better name,” said Basnet. I’m afraid it needs more than that.
Dinner for two was $62 with tip. The check included no alcohol, because Himalayan Kitchen has no liquor license. You may bring your own wine, no corkage.
We had failed to do so, and were reduced to drinking some kind of rose water-yogurt concoction. As we walked out, I spotted KHNL anchor Diane Ako with not only a bottle of wine, but her camera and a notebook on her table. She was writing up the restaurant for her “Date Night” blog (due out midmonth). In case you’re wondering, she was with husband Claus Hansen. “We’re so busy we never see each other,” she said. “This is fun, though I’m surprised we’re still both awake this late.”
1137 11th Ave., (808) 735-1122, lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5 to 10 p.m., paid municipal parking, major credit cards.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.