Counter Culture: Namaste Nepal offers plenty of spice in Rancho Cordova

04/19/2013 12:00 AM

04/22/2013 7:31 AM

Three lunch pals and I arrived too late for the buffet at 15-month-old Namaste Nepal the other day, so we sat at a table in the cavernous dining room and opened the hefty lunch-dinner menu.

We became dizzy as we scanned more than a dozen appetizers, along with 19 vegetable, 12 chicken, nine lamb and seven seafood dishes. Oh, and many more items under the headings "tandoori specials," "biryani specials," "side dishes" and "bread specials."

Complicating the issue was our collective semi-ignorance about Indian cuisine. What's the difference between "palung" and "korma," and "mo-mo" and "pakora"? What is "aloo gobi," "raita" and "dal makhani"? Discovering the firsthand answers to such questions is a key part of the dining adventure, and we are always game.

After we huddled in consultation, we figured there were several ways we could approach ordering: Close our eyes, blindly point and let chance be our guide. Or tack the menu to a wall and throw darts at it, scoring dishes at random. Or ask our server for guidance. We employed two out of the three and ended up with an assortment of delicious "I've never had this before" dishes.

We like Indian food, but we're quick to admit we're not well-versed in its subtleties or many of its basics. However, we do know what's good, as in: Everything we tasted.

Like every world cuisine, Indian is regional, differing in style and content from place to place. For instance, what comes to the table in the north often contains tomato; in the south, it's tamarind. The food is generally spicier in the south, milder in the north.

Namaste Nepal's menu is divided between traditional Indian and Nepalese dishes. Nepal is in the Himalayas, bordering India and China.

How does Nepalese food differ from Indian?

"The main difference is the spicing," said owner Amrit Budhathoki on the phone days later. "Nepalese has fewer spices, is lighter and more (in the tradition) of northern Indian (fare)."

Overall, Indian and Nepalese food involve varying amounts and different preparations of ginger, cardamom, basil, star anise, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, tamarind, nutmeg, mace, saffron, cumin, garlic, onion, fennel, cloves, mint, tomato, coconut and peppers. The results are complex combinations of bursting flavors and mouth-pleasing textures found in no other cuisine. Of course, dishes can be made in varying degrees of heat.

BTW: The website explains that " 'namaste' is a traditional Nepalese and Indian greeting of respect and thank you, with spiritual and symbolic meaning: 'I bow to the divine in you.' "

We chose an array of items, trying to get a feel for the many offerings ($3.50- $16). Though I wanted enough heat in all the dishes to make the eyes water and bring forth rivulets of sweat, we compromised on "medium," which produced a nice afterburner effect.

We began with a basket of four naans (fried and oven-baked flatbreads; we especially liked the cilantro-garlic); Himalayan samosas (potatoes and peas wrapped in pastry dough and fried; "Like cardamom on a stick," one lunch pal said); paneer pakora (fried cheese); saag paneer (that same house-made cheese, in spinach); and chilli gobi (sautéed cauliflower with garlic, ginger and onion).

Then more dishes arrived: chicken korma (chicken curry in yogurt-nutmeg sauce); chicken tikka masala (charcoal-roasted chunks of fowl in herbed tomato sauce splashed with brandy); and more chicken (chef's special, in coconut-curry sauce). Then pieces of lamb in mushroom sauce, salmon in yogurt sauce and crispy grilled prawns with hot dipping sauce.

We spooned all this over white and tamarind-flavored basmati rices, adding mango chutney and silken red, orange, yellow and green sauces. Each forkful led to the next. Leftovers? What leftovers?

It was refreshing to find eagerly helpful, courteous servers in charge of the dining room – though they were so casually dressed we weren't sure at first if they worked there. The cook made frequent visits to our table to explain what was what. How often does that happen?

Given all this, we were puzzled why only six other diners were in the restaurant with us. One of them mentioned she has "been eating Indian food for 30 years and they do a marvelous job here."

Seems to us that lines of veteran and curious diners should be out the door. Maybe our timing was off.

Swordfish, skewered

For centuries, one of the most sought-after kings of the oceans has been the swordfish. Predictably, in recent decades the demand for its firm, flavorful flesh led to gross overfishing.

Thanks to 1998's national "Give Swordfish a Break" promotion and the subsequent conservation efforts led by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the swordfish stocks in the North Atlantic and the Pacific oceans reportedly are stable.

Stocks continue to be stringently overseen to protect the resource, meaning that diners can eat swordfish from those fisheries without a lot of guilt. Still, swordfish overkill is a concern in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That said, one of the best seafood dishes we've found is the seared swordfish skewers with tzatziki sauce at Bistro 33 in El Dorado Hills (sourced from the North Atlantic and the Pacific).

Slightly charred on the outside, moist and succulent inside, the chunks of fish are made even better when dipped into the garlicky yogurt-based sauce ($9.95). Get it at 4364 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills; (916) 358-3733, www.edh.bistro33.com.


NAMASTE NEPAL

Where: 2228 Sunrise Blvd., Rancho Cordova; a sister store is at 825 Russell Blvd., Davis; (530) 792-7321.

Hours: Closed Tuesdays. Lunch buffet is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays; dinner is 5-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays.

Food: Four stars

Ambience: Two stars

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 635-9100, www.namastenepalrestaurant.com

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.

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