The philosophy of Japanese cuisine, when it first made its entrance onto the global stage, was not immediately appealing to the Bhatmara mind. A stress on balance, health and modesty mixes uneasily with a fan of Bacchus. However, over the years, it has won itself an increasingly large space in my welcoming stomach. The simplicity is appealing. The imperative of quality and fresh ingredients warms me further. And frankly the world is a better place for the ocean of wisdom that is seared tuna. (Please note, this is a frivolous food column. Any worried environmentalists, please grumble to Daniel Lak. I understand, from perusing his columns, that he likes serious grumbling and he likes his readers\' grumbles.)
The problem facing Japanese cooks in Nepal are basic issues of supply. Japanese cuisine choice is fish-centric. Fish require more than a drazzle or two of water. And fish from the sea, when asked, regularly express a preference for salt with their H2O. So unless Nepal's borders change dramatically (a tectonic shift perhaps?) a tour of Nepal\'s fertile coastline and its rich bounty will remain extant.
For now, the nearest 'fresh' sea fish is to be found in the New Road fish market. Bhatmara Bhai has traveled the route from the plains of Bengal to the Valley. It is long, dusty and hot. Those of a cavalier disposition should seek bright red gills and bright eyes. You have been warned.
Consequently I have nothing but admiration for the Japanese restauranteurs of the Valley. They are gritty, brave and indomitable of spirit. No easy route to the diners pocket for them. In Nepal, our stoic Japanese restaurant owner is forced to go just a little further 'off road'. The style of Kathmandu's Japanese cooking, to keep costs in the affordable, is home-style. It is definitely not the more performance art end of Japanese food. Spartan conditions have led to a higher overall standard. Japanese food compares well to other cuisines featuring in the Valley.
On my list of favourites is Royal Hana Garden in Lazimpat. Once nothing out of the ordinary, it appears to have recently pulled its culinary socks up. I regularly indulge. The garden is a peaceful and relaxing place to eat, although the tranquility is occasionally shaken by the music that digs from a collection chosen by Mr Elevator. The last time I went, the Beatles were being assaulted by a choir. A gentle friendly grumble will change the CD.
My choices when eating Japanese are firmly conservative, the result, I believe, of my initial trauma induced by their incomprehensible healthy eating philosophy. Therapy has done nothing to make me more adventurous. To open the batting, a crisp tempura and a very cold beer make an amicable coupling. Royal Hana Garden's tempura (with apologies to King Wenceslas) is light, crisp and even. In the Kathmandu Tempura Top 10 it is only beaten by the tempura of the Durbar Marg Koto. I normally follow the tempura with California roll with crab (tinned, sadly). The rice in the sushi is as it should be, compacted but not overly sticky and the coat of sesame generous. Yummy.
There are a number of things that makes Royal Hana Garden stand out from the crowd. Firstly the service is just right. And this is enhanced by the ebullient owner-a woman (!)-whose engaging and helpful style makes a very refreshing change.
The next difference is the delivery of complimentary treats in between courses that guide the non-Japanese glutton into the wider world of Japanese food. There is life beyond sashimi. The meal begins with a complimentary salad of mouli, carrot and seaweed salad in an unusual but pleasing dressing. Of the in-between course offerings that I have had, I particularly enjoy the tongue with wasabi. The desert is yet another unexpected final touch. A bizarre sweet bean concoction duly arrives. Although my initial reaction was one of fear, suspicion and general sneering (I mean, sweet Heinz beans?) my taste buds disagreed. Don\'t dine with me. I want your beans. Sweet.
Royal Hana Garden also has hot springs, but did Bhatmara Bhai brave these? Japanese philosophy has its limits. Health and food should not be mixed.