Devi in the Details
A New Nepalese Restaurant Livens Up a Dead Space, But Still Has Kinks to Iron Out
In Nepal, the Kumari Devi is a living goddess, an ordinary prepubescent girl who is chosen, through an elaborate ritual, to live her young days in Kat-mandu's Kumari Ghar god-house. She is a source of worship and great affection, until she menstruates and the search for a new Kumari begins. It is apparently considered unlucky to marry an ex-Kumari.
Speaking of unlucky, the restaurant space at 911 N. Charles St. has been enshrouded for years in the atmosphere of a highly effective curse. A Nepalese-Indian restaurant named Kumari has recently opened here, and while Mount Vernon residents are really pulling for it, you can't blame people for being superstitious. In recent years, such restaurants as the City Diner, 2 North George, and Time II East (later, the Circuit) have set up in this space, only to perish. Let's face it--it's not the most advantageous space for a restaurant. The main dining rooms are arranged in railroad-car fashion, one flight up. A never-loved, possibly hopeless bar space sits just below ground level, where a photo shop used to be.
The space's new tenants have done about as good a job as anyone could have hoped in smoothing out the space's rough edges. One of their better ideas was to concede the massive grimness of the large central room, which now consists mainly of the bar and the setup for the daily lunch buffet. The back room, which in previous incarnations served as overflow seating for luckless diners, is now the main dining room, and a good deal of attention has been lavished on this space, which now feels, if not exactly sumptuous, at least as though it were ready for company. Assorted framed prints have been placed around the room, interesting figurines adorn a fireplace mantle, and pretty, colorful lanterns hang from the ceiling. The tables are dressed with cloths, cloth napkins, and, for probably some good reason, paper place mats.
As articulated to us, what distinguishes Nepalese cuisine from that of India is a more restrained use of spices (perhaps only one spice will be used in each dish), and an overall tendency toward less rich preparations. Kumari's menu, which consists overwhelmingly of familiar Indian dishes, is virtually silent on the subject of Nepalese cuisine. There is one page that lists five entrées "from the top of the world." On the night we visited, two of these--one featuring lamb tongue, the other organ meat from either chicken or mutton--were unavailable. Although the staff seemed truly sorry about not having these items on hand, our table inevitably wondered how committed Kumari was to promoting and sharing the cuisine of Nepal, as distinct from more accessible Indian fare.
We began with a plate of chaat papdi ($2.95), described as Indian-style nachos. This was a refreshing and spicy mix of onions, tomatoes, and crushed baked potatoes mixed with crunchy diamond-shaped roti crackers. Mutton momo ($$5.95), or dumplings, are filled with ground lamb mixed with onions, cilantro, garlic, and spices. We ordered them fried (because we're reckless and wild), but the restaurant's owner later told us that they're a hundred times better steamed. We thought they were pretty good, though, even in their ruined state.
Thukpa ($4.95), a Tibetan noodle soup, tasted pleasantly of buckwheat and was full of tiny sliced vegetables. Another Tibetan-style soup ($4.95) featured momo dumplings in a rich tomato broth simmering with Indian spices. A katchumber salad ($3.95) mixed diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions with chat masala and lemon juice. Unlike the piquant and pleasing spiciness of the "nachos" dish, the spices here somewhat overwhelmed the vegetables, leveling out their inherent flavors into one broad taste.
One of the Nepalese specialties on hand, sukuti ($9.95), was truly exotic, or was it just plain odd? It's basically a plate of dried beef. This was something new, at least, but we would have enjoyed it more had it been as succulently juicy as the menu stated. This was served with beated rice (kind of like hard puffed rice) and a roasted soybean mix, two staples of the Nepalese diet. Daal bhat set ($9.95) is an everyday Nepalese meal of curried lentils, mixed vegetables, potatoes, and rice. The component parts were served here in separate soup cups, and my companion particularly liked the flavors of the mixed vegetables. A lamb vindaloo ($12.50) was less creamy than typically found in Indian restaurants, and, although the sauce was tasty and spicy, the lamb itself didn't seem to have acquired much spiciness, or tenderness, from its marinating.
We're going to give Kumari another try. For one thing, this outing was short by one mouth (only three of us covering a large menu) and, for another, we've heard that the lunch buffet is terrific and bountiful. We want that 911 N. Charles St. curse broken, and we're coming back for those mutton innards.
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