India looms large at Nepalese cafe
Special to The Seattle Times
Annapurna, the mountain, is one of the jewels of the Himalayas and the world's 10th-highest peak. I mulled this over as I descended the flight of stairs leading to Annapurna Cafe, which is in the basement of a building on Broadway. There's a big photo of the mountain on the way down.
Annapurna's basement digs, underneath Kinko's, are everything you might expect from a below-ground-floor restaurant. Clean, yes, but dim, windowless and low-ceilinged.
There are some nice photos of Nepal (and a picture of the Taj Mahal), but let's just say that if you are on a date, there will be little to distract you from your companion.
India, as a nation, has a long culinary reach. If you've had Afghan food, or Pakistani, Bengali or even Thai, you've seen that the principles of Indian cooking (particularly the emphasis on spice blends) extend far beyond the country's borders. Annapurna's owners are from Nepal, which sits just to India's northeast, so it's no surprise to find tandoori chicken and samosas on the menu.
Look a little more closely, though, and you'll find more unusual offerings like the momo, the national dumpling of Nepal, a squat round thing available in chicken ($6.25) or spinach ($6.95, see below). I tried and enjoyed both, although it is admittedly hard to find a dumpling I don't like. An order of momos to go would be a great snack.
At lunch one day, I tried the lamb vindaloo ($5.95), but the chunks of lamb were disappointingly tough and the accompanying vegetable soup was bland.
The lunch menu is dominated by rather old-hat vegetarian and non-vegetarian plates (palak paneer, chicken masala and so on). Dinner is much better. There's a recurring mussel special ($11.95), cooked with coconut milk and served with naan for dipping, that I hope to try next time — the combination of mussel broth and naan sounds irresistible. And sizzling platters of lamb and chicken with vegetables (chicken tikka, $7.95, and lamb boti, $8.75), kept going by.
So, if you'll excuse the metaphor, Annapurna may not be one of the 10 highest peaks in the Seattle dining range, but if you're in the neighborhood at dinnertime, it's worth the climb. Down.
Spinach momo: These cute green dumplings with swirled tops would be right at home at a vegetarian dim-sum parlor; they're doughy, in a good way, and filled with well-spiced spinach, mushroom and carrot (there's spinach in the dough, too). They're served with a pair of chutneys for dipping; I liked the peanut, a traditional Nepali puree of peanuts, green chilies and roasted tomatoes, worlds away from the ubiquitous satay sauce.
Idlis with sambar soup: Idlis (cooked, mashed white rice pressed into discs) are nothing without their accompanying soup — a spicy mix of lentils, okra, tomatoes and other vegetables, with a hint of lemon juice. The balance of spicy and sour in the soup is perfect, and the okra is fastidiously unslimy. It would be great soup even without the idlis.
Royal lamb kawaf: If I say "lamb curry," you will picture this exact dish, chunks of braised boneless lamb in a dark brown sauce rich with all of the Indian spices in the larder. Fine, but standard.
Lhasa curry with shrimp: If you've had chicken makhani at an Indian restaurant, this is basically the same thing: a curry made with a base of tomato puree and butter. It's delicious, although you have to pretend you're not eating a huge bowl of tomato sauce. Full of large, properly cooked shrimp, but would someone please explain to me why restaurants leave the tail on the shrimp when it's not meant to be picked up by hand?
Itemized bill, meal for two
Spinach momo $6.95
Idlis with sambar soup $5.95
Royal lamb kawaf $11.95
Lhasa curry with shrimp $9.95
Tibetan herb tea (2) $3.00
Matthew Amster-Burton: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company