Thamel is awash with restaurants catering to the budget backpacker. If a banana pancake, or any dish featured in the 1970's Peace Corps cookbook tickles your fancy, then be my guest. If you fancy something a little more classical then things get difficult. Indian and Chinese are available, but these things are most often uninspired. Delhi and Beijing have moved on. Move your palate Westward and things get yet more spartan, the edible choices that rise above the mediocrity are limited. Think about it for a moment. Italian food beyond the excellence of Fire and Ice's pizza perfection is unknown. And for French brasserie style, Chez Caroline is an obvious candidate. But few others spring to mind.
When Caf? Mitra, owned by Master Kunal Lama, opened some 18 months ago, it quickly added itself high up the list. With good reason. On d?cor alone Caf? Mitra is different. While set in an old building the style is modernist. There are no other restaurants in the Valley with vibrant orange walls. Regular art exhibitions add to the visuals. Quite how these oeuvres manage to sit comfortably-they do-with the colour scheme is a mystery to me but testament to Master Lama's confident taste. Perhaps most attractively, as the winter cold starts to bite, Caf? Mitra, unlike most other restaurants, is cosy. Tall people, however, be warned. Caf? Mitra is an old building. A motorcycle helmet is a sensible, if unfashionable, prophylactic.
The reason for Bhatmara Bhai's visit to Caf? Mitra was the recent (ish) opening of another floor of the restaurant. This time in the shape of a cocktail lounge. The style again, is modernist. Instead of orange, this floor features lively green walls. Again, from a style point of view, it works. So do the really excellent range of classic and well-mixed cocktails. There are other more eclectic offerings dedicated to the owner's colourful chums. 'Cosmic Chas' is one example. 'Chas', however, shall have to wait, until I tire of Mr Mojito's charms.
Master Lama again wins yet another gold star in Bhatmara's good books for the thoughtful addition of a halfway decent hi-fi and his healthily eclectic music tastes. There appears to be a welcome refusal to play any Bob Marley or indeed the poptastic ambient monk music that pumps out of Thamel's CD shops. The music is intelligently set at a volume that obviates the need for sign language.
Returning downstairs the menu meets with further high marks. It is short and unfussy. The food is accompanied by an equally no nonsense and sensibly priced wine list. I chose the chicken liver for starters. They were simply prepared and balanced: a nice, delicate sweet and sour. For the main course I chose soy roast duck. A healthy plate of tender sweet duck with roast potatoes and steamed bok choi. Excellent. Neither dish was complex in either preparation or presentation. Good food need not be. And it is this attention to quality and detail that is the leitmotiv that sets the restaurant apart. The butter is not butter but butter run through with cracked pepper. There are not one but four breads to choose from. The bread is warmed. A breed apart.
If I have any grumbles, and this is a minor whinge, it was with the dessert. Both my partner for the evening and I beat the retreat with the Banoffee cheesecake. Cheesecake is good only when it is bad. A forkful should transmit loud imperative neon warnings to men of a certain age, lifestyle and girth to: "Step away from the plate!" Don't get me wrong. I finished my cheesecake. But I had the uneasy sensation that this thing was doing me some unwelcome good.
But this is a minor complaint. Frankly, it is one of the best meals you can eat in Kathmandu. In terms of style, ambience, attention to detail and service I can't think of anywhere better. Master Lama understands food.
It's getting close to the end of the Roman calendar year and Bhatmara Bhai is going on his holidays. There are as yet no awards for 'Best Restaurant in Kathmandu' but it's high time there were. So on behalf of the Nepali Times, and without consulting with my editor, I would like to finish this article
by extending Bhatmara Bhai's congratulations to Master Kunal Lama, for the Bhatmara Bhai Best Restaurant Award, Kathmandu 2003.