31 July - 6 Aug 2015 #769

Al Fresco

One of the best-kept secrets about fine Italian dining in Kathmandu
Someplace Else by Sunaina Rana

One of the best-kept secrets about fine Italian dining in Kathmandu is the Al Fresco at the Soaltee Crowne Plaza. Perhaps because it is tucked away and not located in Lazimpat – few know about it. That is what makes it so special.

But even frequent diners there may not know that the restaurant has been around since 1997, located in the premises of an iconic hotel that is itself celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. 

Together with the Lucknow Moghul cuisine at Kakori next door, the restaurant is in the lower floor of the luxury villas built for SAARC Summits. 

Al Fresco is offering a two-week pizza and pasta promo till 7 August, and Nepali Times was invited to sample this “Italian gourmet tour”, as executive chef Yubaraj Pokhrel likes to call it. The ambience at lunchtime midweek was decidedly Mediterranean, since the monsoon had taken a break and the sun was out in all its glory shining down at the palm bush outside the window. Inside, the décor with copies of oil on canvas by the early Italian masters lend an authentic air. The waiters, dressed up to their nines in bow ties and white gloves give a touch of class and they engage the guest in informal pre-prandial banter about the choices, as is the custom in Italy.

Chef Pokhrel recommends the bread starters with olive and tomato dips that are on the piquant side and appealing to the Nepali taste buds. The minestrone is not like minestrones elsewhere in Kathmandu, that’s for sure -- the aroma of the herbs waft up even before the tongue gets a taste of it. All this is washed down with a very appropriate and refreshingly dry white Italian Chardonnay that is perfect for the Italian summer (and the Nepali monsoon).

Moving right along, the three courses arrive. Spaghetti con il Gambretti (Veneto) and, as expected, the pasta is just right in its oval platter. Not soggy like chowchow, and not too tough with just the proper hint of yellow. The right boil is the secret of great pasta, and Al Fresco has that small detail down pat. The shrimp is a perfect accompaniment to the spaghetti, the meat grilled to just the right texture, to be scooped out of the shell.  The Ravioli di spinaci con Noci (Abruzzi) came with a subtle ricotta and walnut tribute to the  tastebuds. This reviewer will skip that item next time, though, since you could easily make it at home by adding cheese and spinach fillings into a veggie momo. 

Into the second glass of Chardonnay, we are right in the mood to explore Al Fresco’s innovative international pizza list. In a globalised world, the variety on offer does justice to the diversity of world cuisine out there as toppings do to authentic Italian pizza. 

One can’t go wrong with Neapolitana, and this one had an extra sour tang from capers and pearl onions in vinegar. We were curious, however, about the Himalayan Herb Pizza with its Nepali topping made of chicken bits, a blend of yak and mozzarella cheese, timur, and til. The end result is something that if you closed your eyes, you could be by the bay in Naples with your heart in Nepal. We suggested that Chef Pokhrel add jimbu to the topping next time, and perhaps concoct a vegetarian topping for non-carnivores.

By the time the tiramisu (complimentary till 7 August with all meals) came around, we were singing  hosannahs to the gods of gastronomy. You can tell the mascarpone here is the original stuff, the cream layers are laced with coffee liquor and the sponge cake has the unmistakeable scent of amaretto. 

We won’t give you prices of the items, suffice it to say that Al Fresco is not more expensive than some of the classier eateries in the city centre. You have another week to enjoy the pizza pasta promo.