You’d Think Food From the Himalayas Would Fly a Little Higher Than This
From my vast previous experience in Nepalese dining (one restaurant in Mount Vernon), I was concerned going into the new Kathmandu Kitchen (22 W. Allegheny Ave., Towson,  847-9595) that a real revelation—a fiercely different new cuisine—might not be in store. And I wasn’t wrong. If someone handed you the menu from Kathmandu Kitchen, with the restaurant’s name and a small corner of Nepalese house specialties blacked out, you’d say it was Indian.
I’m still trying to figure out whether there actually is an indigenous, distinctive Nepalese cuisine and the pioneering places here are hesitant about showing it, or whether the overlap between the food of northern India and Nepal is all but complete. A little bit of both, it appears. I looked at online menus of Nepalese restaurants from Pasadena to Sydney, and discovered, yes, both Kathmandu Kitchen and Mount Vernon’s Kumari are holding back on the home cooking. Mutton and goat are notably absent from Kathmandu’s menu, as are marinated fishes, noodle soups, and most anything pickled or pungent.
The below-sidewalk dining space has daunted its previous tenants, most recently Indonesia House, and a sprucing up by the new owners has not completely dispelled the somberness that hangs over the room, which is nevertheless comfortable and serene. The staff welcomed us warmly and gave us attentive service, although there’s something awkward about being asked for your order within seconds of being seated.
We started off with chicken momo ($6.95), the filled dumplings that appear without fail on every Nepalese menu. If there are subtle differences between Nepalese and Indian spices, momos are the best place for your tongue to tease them out. Nepalese spicing is generally less assertive, more garlicky, sometimes more fully rounded. The steamed dough pillows encasing the minced chicken and spices (lamb and vegetable variations are available), compared with other Southeast Asian specimens, is perceptibly broader and softer.
For our other appetizers, we tried both the vegetable pakora and vegetable samosa. I thought the pakora were superb—freshly fried clusters of gently seasoned potatoes and chick peas. The samosas, however, betrayed evidence of having been frozen. (A neighboring table sent their order back.) Certainly, the kitchen might be unfreezing their own homemade samosas, and we did dine there on a Sunday night, but still, it was a deflating moment. Good bread—warm nan, onion-filled chaputi, and crispy lentil papadam—made things better, as did cups of strongly brewed spiced tea.
A side-by-side comparison of the Indian mainstay lamb vindaloo ($11.25) and a selection from the Nepalese corner, gorkhali ($12.95)—a spicy Nepalese dish with yogurt, slices of fresh green chiles, ginger, and garlic—overwhelmingly favored the latter, which produced chunks of lamb far more tender, a much creamier and satisfying texture, more depth of flavor. Chicken or shrimp can be added in place of lamb in this dish, and I recommend it for your table. I absolutely wanted more gorkhali—portions seemed just not large enough to notice, almost what you’d expect at lunch prices.
Two vegetarian entrées—baigan bharta ($8.50), baked eggplant with onion, tomatoes, and herbs; and chana masala, spiced chickpeas with tomatoes and onions—further suggested that Kathmandu Kitchen has potential as a destination for Towson-area vegans and vegetarians. The baked eggplant was especially satisfying, with a wholesome directness, but the chickpeas wanted more relish—they approached blandness.
Kathmandu Kitchen satisfied me, but I wish I still weren’t so mystified about Nepalese cuisine. Maybe I’ll try the lunch buffet sometime, always a good method for exploring the full breadth of a kitchen’s offerings. Kathmandu Kitchen also operates a carry-out business, including pizzas, subs, and fried chicken, which presumably will keep business humming as this new restaurant finds an audience.
I seldom beat the authenticity drum but I’ll tap on it here. I wish Kathmandu Kitchen would take a chance on us, serve up something a little unfamiliar, even a little scary. Until it does, I have enough good Indian restaurants hard by me to make rushing back for dinner less than urgent.