For an escape to the Himalayas, take a seat at Himal Chuli (318 State St.) — a tiny Nepalese restaurant adorned by tapestries, Dalai Lama photographs and statues. This longstanding storefront offers adventurous diners casual, authentic cuisine in a no-frills atmosphere.
But beware meat lovers — Himal Chuli owes its existence to serious-minded vegetarians. While the menu offers a variety of vegetarian and carnivorous options, epicureans only seem to rave about the meatless dishes, while the rest of the menu remains a mystery. On a recent visit, I decided to test both the popular dishes and those nobody talks about — and quickly learned the reasons for the solely vegetarian hype.
When my friend and I arrived at Himal Chuli, our overworked waitress immediately handed us two menus and requested we seat ourselves. We chose the only available table and for the next hour were showered with our selections at random.
The Mango Lassi ($3.00), described on the menu as a "refreshing yogurt drink," was our first taste of Nepal. The drink, a bizarre concoction, arrived at room temperature and had the aroma and taste of sour milk.
As a starter, we ordered Himal's Combination Platter ($8.95), a satisfying quarto of Himalayan staples — momochas, samosa, dal and roti. The momochas, two steamed vegetable dumplings stuffed with crushed peanuts, chickpeas, and a purée of vegetables, were doused in a slightly spicy tomato-coriander salsa — a unique and enjoyable appetizer. The samosa, a sizable pastry filled with potatoes, peas and a touch of curry garnished with shredded carrots and red cabbage salad, was dressed with a sweet and spicy yogurt sauce. The dal, a simple soup comprised of mixed beans, barley, black sesame seeds and spinach, lacked flavor and creativity. The oven-hot roti was the perfect accompaniment.
Before we finished the combination dish, our confused waitress dropped off the salad included with the entrée — a colorful base of romaine lettuce covered by sliced red onion, carrots and green pepper, topped with dill-red-wine vinaigrette and soy nuts with a fantastic crunch.
Our non-vegetarian entrées destroyed our Nepalese feast. The Chicken Sikar ($12.95) was a generous portion of meat supposedly flavored with cumin, ginger, garlic and onions, accompanied by white or brown rice, the daily tarkara and a choice of salad or dal. The chicken, a large leg and a small breast, had remnants of the spices listed on the menu but arrived over-cooked and dry. The side dish of the daily tarkara — a stew of potatoes, peas, onions and tofu cooked in turmeric, coriander, cumin and a hint of garlic, formed a distinctive curry. We adored the tarkara and would recommend it as an entrée size.
The Beef Buff ($12.95), composed of lean, chewy beef slices and sautéed with a medley of green peppers, mushrooms, onions and cherry tomatoes in Mediterranean spices, further hindered our opinion of Himal's meat dishes. This stir-fry dish was the ideal combination of ingredients devastated by too much salt and fire.
Himal Chuli offers a journey into the unfamiliar — but in order to save yourself from disappointment, stick to the vegetarian dishes.