Nepali Times
thoughts for food


ipling famously wrote: "The wildest dreams of Kew/Are the facts of Kathmandu." You're taking a walk on the delightfully wild side when you eat in Kathmandu's many-splendoured havens of civilisation.

Old Nepalis will tell you about a lineage of kings who ruled for 800 years but went into decline because they feasted too much and too well, and that 108 years of regal Prime Ministers faded away because of a surfeit of hedonism and food.

The old Nepalis inevitably add that food is a wonderful way to go, if go you must.
No surprise, then, that restaurants are thick on the ground in the Valley and the hills are alive with the sounds of nibbling, tasting and downright chomping in at least 12 languages. Kathmandu is incestuously small and one knows all the people whose establishments one frequents. So if this is a plug for friends, acquaintances and those in-between, no apology is tendered. Their food is superb.

Gitu Rana isn't just the landlord of Baber Mahal Revisited, but also co-owns a Rana restaurant there, Baithak, where you feast on delicacies like wild boar cooked to perfection served on heavy silver thalis that have legs so that, Rana-style, you don't have to bend too much. Around you are portraits of ancestors who look stern but well fed. King Birendra is known to have eaten at Baithak and rumour has him so enjoying himself that when he left late, huge tips were left to the staff as a royal apology for keeping them late.

Also there is Chez Caroline, run by an long-time Kathmanduite who, I like to think, tired of cooking macher jhol for her Bengali husband, and now serves crepes, quiches, and other hedonistic dishes. My favourites are the roast capon with truffle oil and foie gras, the recherch? guinea fowl served in a pink pepper sauce and the mixed salad with Roquefort cheese, walnut and chicken. Diplomats throng Chez Caroline giving credence to Oscar Wilde's saying, "To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist-the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know exactly how much oil one must put with one's vinegar."

Opposite Chez Caroline, is Kunal Lama's ambulatory Simply Shutters that moved into Baber Mahal Revisited and is about to move out again. Lama, 28, is the youngest purveyor of fine food in Kathmandu. His Zen Mackerel delicately saut?ed in ginger and garlic and salad of Chinese spinach tossed in soy sauce and sesame oil, will have me search Thamel for Simply Shutters and Kunal's new incarnation. Or perhaps not, I owe him a horrific sum of money for several helpings of his unbelievable Torta Caprese.

Thamel combines the Left Bank and Greenwich Village in a unique shop-live-eat experience where youth of all ages from around the world find bliss. And at the heart of it is the Thai Yin Yang, the only place in Kathmandu you have to make a reservation. Mine host and friend is Martin, a noble Schweitzer, who regales me with anecdotes of Kathmandu happenings like rickshaw rallies, fashion shows and who's doing what to whom. I eat his superb Penang Curry or the delicate chicken in oyster sauce, coming up for air only to greet the Thai lady-chef who tells me what to eat next.

An American flag flies outside Over The Rainbow in Thamel-John Childs' tribute to The Joy Of Cooking, the US's best-selling cookbook and to Dorothy, Toto, and Oz. Here are humongous New York deli sandwiches, named after The Wizard of Oz, and wholesome American fare like chicken pot pie, meatloaf, shepherd's pie and a stew so delicious I order it on the side every time. Doggie bags are freely available and frequently necessary.

Opposite is Pilgrims Feed and Read that a vegetarian gourmet friend insists is the best in Kathmandu. Run by a jovial Banarasi and a Nam veteran, the bookshop's caf? is full of tourists delighting in daals, bolting down bhartas and revelling in rotis hot from a visible tandoor. The restaurant also serves tongba, a millet beer traditionally served hot in bamboo and sipped through an iron straw.
KC's, whose steaks are the best in Thamel, rivals Rum Doodle as the earliest restaurant in Thamel. Rum Doodle is run by a clan of friendly Pokharels. The drinks are generous and get more so as the evening progresses and the snacks, especially the vol-au-vent, are terrific. Large plywood Yeti feet adorn the walls with messages from all patrons who've climbed a six-thousander. If some are unreadable, blame it on the booze.

Away from Thamel is The Shangri La Hotel, which has a new Jazz Bar. The menu is contemporary fusion chic-Southeast Asian delicacies, French accents and even some Indian-and there are cigars on order and cognac in snifters. The Shambala Garden Caf? in hotel's award-winning garden has a nifty mixed grill I indulge in every time I pass by. When a friend objected to the amount of meat and talked of clean arteries, I looked around at the beautiful garden and the beckoning grill and thought maybe this is the hereafter and who wants Better Homes and Gardens arteries anyway?

Mandarin, The Everest Hotel's Chinese outlet, revolves around the gyakok, a meal in a dish that meandered from Manchuria to Tibet four centuries ago. And what a dish-brass with a chimney for hot coals around a bowl full of meats and vegetables in a herbed chicken broth. The sauces allow you to create your own taste-fiery Szechwan, zesty Han or mild Cantonese. Chef Xiao Bing and Chef Bhatia preside and mainland China and India are endlessly "bhai bhai". The food at The Casino Everest is delicious and free for gamers. Chef Keshab's most special speciality is a Bhunna Bhunna Ghost.

The Radisson has an outlet called The Olive Garden with a menu positively sinful in its calorific content. Chef Roger Blundy conjures sheer magic, which, while not strictly Italian, is a delightful combination of east, west and other compass points. I have many favourites but frequently order the sirloin steak or rack of New Zealand lamb. Roger's art lies in the herbs that gently flavour my favourites.
The Alfresco at The Soaltee Crowne Plaza is traditional Italian fare at its best. The ambience is perfect, the minestrone genuine and the pastas a marvel. But best of all is the smoked salmon starter, not Italian, but impeccably served with just the right amount of capers, and onion rings. And the tiramisu is a dream.
So come to Kathmandu eat and drink late into the Himalayan nights, sleep and then go gently to the first meal of the day remembering that only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)