Lumbini Should Focus More on Its Nepalese Cuisine
Named for the birthplace of the Buddha, in Southern Nepal, Lumbini opened back in early February in the old Five Seasons spot in Brown's Arcade. This is the same narrow-sidewalk block of Charles Street that also includes Milton's, Cazbar, Ban Thai, Mick O'Shea's (and across the street, Copra), and you can't help but wonder if it's being marketed to its full potential, perhaps as a business-district restaurant row.
Lumbini does little to up the ambiance of the area. The main room, with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a dining loft, has been done up, with dark red carpeting, scenic murals, and solid wood furniture, creating a serene, even somber, dining area. Considered, though, against the bundle of new big-style Asian restaurant openings--Tsunami, Ra, Baltimore Pho, the new Minato--the absence of hipness here is refreshing.
Still, the room is a maybe a little too fussily formal--a chandelier? A casual ambiance might encourage more walk-in business. And it can feel lonely here in the evening, even with the place half-full. A liquor license would help (it's BYOB), and so would having another go at the table arrangement, which is too rigid. It's probably perfectly fine here in the daytime, when Lumbini offers its version of the $9.99 lunch buffet.
There aren't too any surprises in store at Lumbini, just carefully prepared, modestly seasoned Indian food. The food tastes freshly prepared, although that might be a conclusion we jumped to after waiting a longer than expected time for the food to arrive. The menu doesn't advertise any particular house specialties, and neither does it highlight the distinction between its northern Indian and Nepalese cuisines--a small, separate listing of Nepalese dishes is buried in back of the menu.
Two of the very best things we tried were Nepalese (or Tibetan) classics. The chicken momo ($6.95), a kind of potsticker but with a much floppier dough wrapper (think soup dumplings) and a cilantro-and-curry minced chicken filling, was so much fun to eat. And the sukati lamb (our waitress needed a little convincing that we really wanted it) featured hunks of cured lamb meat, served with slices of jalapeño and onion that produced the chewy, crackling, spicy mouth pleasure of chicarrones. There were more mixed reactions to the chat papedi ($4.50), billed as Nepalese-style nachos, a yogurt-dressed potato and tomato salad, laced with strips of papadam. This concoction, a street-vendor snack in Nepal, hit some as refreshing, others as picnic food.
We liked everything else we had, from the extra thin and crispy, cumin-colored (and complimentary) papadam, served with cilantro and tamarind relishes and mango chutney to the (again, complimentary) cups of Nepalese tea that tasted like liquid rice pudding. No revelations, but all solid examples of their familiar kind: for appetizers, a pretty and gentle daal soup ($3.50), served in almost too large a portion--we ate less than half and had the rest for next day's lunch; golden vegetable samosas ($3.95), with fluffy pockets of potatoes, peas, and chickpeas; and seafood pakora ($7.95), tasty little nuggets of deep-fried shrimp and fish.
Entrée portions looked small, but the food was rich and plenty filling. We'd order the malekhu fish curry ($15.95) again; its curry bright with flashes of mustard flavor. The malai kofta ($12.95) was its typical overwhelming and satisfyingly creamy self, with a nice lack of mushiness to the fried potatoes. We appreciated the sauce in a shrimp vindaloo ($15.95) that gave up clear and sharp vinegar notes just beneath the heat, and the moist hunks of yogurt-marinated salmon featured in a tandoori preparation ($16.95).
The service we found here was impressively sweet, smoothing over the longish waits for food. We can get Indian food anywhere; we're going back to Lumbini for more momo and definitely more cured lamb, even if we're tempted to carry it home in favor of dining in. What we'd love to see is these nice people bringing more confidence and enthusiasm to their Nepalese cuisine. H
Open daily for lunch and dinner.