After all the gorging and imbibing that's been going on lately — the Christmas cookies, the hot buttered rum, the potato latkes, the Strasbourg goose — it's a relief to soothe the old corpus with food that's actually good for you. While there's nothing like Hershey's Kisses and bourbon-laced eggnog to ease oneself through the darkest, dreariest days of the year, nourishing soup, bushels of vegetables, hearty stews, and the snark and spice of ginger, garlic, pepper, and citrus is precisely what the doctor ordered when those holiday credit card bills fill the mailbox.
Some of the most salubrious food on the planet is prepared in Nepal, where the rugged climate makes soul-soothing sustenance a necessity, the prevailing Hinduism preaches the spiritual benefits of vegetarianism, and grains, greens, and lentils are the common culinary currency. It's not difficult to find this hearty, tasty cuisine in the Bay Area; there are half a dozen Himalayan restaurants in Berkeley alone. (We especially like the chicken noodle thukpa at Kathmandu, the okra curry at Everest Cafe, and the lamb-coriander momos at Taste of the Himalayas.) The newest entry in the field is Mount Everest Restaurant, which opened this past September.
It's located six blocks south of the Cal campus where Tandor Kitchen had previously prepared and served admirable counter-service Indian food. The new owners have classed-up the space with napery and waitstaff and candlelight, but the high ceilings and industrial-storefront milieu give the place a cool, echo-y ambience instead of that cozy feeling you want from a neighborhood comfort-food hideaway. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer nice panoramas of Telegraph Avenue, though, and there's a mezzanine upstairs complete with al fresco balcony seating.
We began our meal with Himalayan garlic soup (the locals' age-old remedy for altitude sickness), a light, not overwhelmingly garlicky broth sprinkled with herbs and minced vegetables — and a sort of brisk, healthy aperitif. The house momos (savory steamed dumplings that are Nepal's answer to Russian pelmeni or Japanese gyoza) were delicate and juicy, filled with chopped chicken and onion and served with a spicy bisque-like tomato dipping sauce. This was followed by Nepal's national dish, dal bhat tarkari, a sort of Himalayan combo platter that's traditionally eaten twice a day. The dal is spiced, puréed lentils; the bhat is barley, millet, or (in our case) rice; and the tarkari is curried vegetables. At Mount Everest the different ingredients were served in a sectioned tray along with an unexciting lamb curry, a tasty rice pudding laced with cardamom, and some wonderfully zesty pickled vegetables; the overall effect was visually impressive but not particularly memorable. We preferred the chhoilla (chunks of chicken grilled in a clay oven until tender and smoky) and the khasi ko masu (rich, fatty goat meat served in a silver tureen with a serviceable curry sauce).
Mount Everest also serves several Indian dishes, beginning with crisp papadum (lentil wafers); salty, ponderous mixed-vegetable pakoras; and exceptional pea and potato samosa turnovers, crunchy and not too oily on the outside, tender and delicately flavored on the inside. The tandoori oven produced the Mt. Everest Sizzling Platter, a steamy extravaganza of dense, spicy lamb sausage; overcooked chicken; pretty good prawns; and perfectly moist and flaky salmon. Another seafood entrée, catfish vindaloo, wasn't peppery enough for our palates (we ordered it extra spicy), but the fish and potatoes were tender and their gravy was rich and oniony. The lamb saag (lamb with spinach) and the biryani (fried rice with vegetables) were inoffensively un-spicy as well, an indication that the restaurant doesn't think its Berkeley clientele is ready for the real thing. (We are.) Happily, there was also aloo gobi on the menu, potatoes and cauliflower and herbs and spices cooked until lush and soul-soothing, and our favorite dish of the evening, bhatura, a slightly sweet deep-fried yeast bread with a puffy, pillowy appearance and a nice chewy consistency. It was served with chana masala, a lusty garbanzo-bean stew, and the combination of the crisply fried sweet bread and the creamy, peppery garbanzos was unexpectedly delicious.
Both Nepal and India embrace centuries-old vegetarian traditions, making Mount Everest an ideal spot for meat-free dining. Appetizers include the garlic soup, samosas, pakoras, and papadum as well as vegetable momos, aloo tikki (fried potato patties with chutney or garbanzo beans), and a house salad with carrots and cucumber. Among the entrées is a Nepalese vegetarian chow mein plus a dozen different stews and curries fragrant with garbanzo beans, eggplant, onion, tomato, lentils, potatoes, peas, okra, spinach, carrots, cauliflower, and a bazaar's worth of spices. You can also fill up on six varieties of bread, rice au naturel, or with vegetables, or a naan "wrap" stuffed with seasonal veggies, potato patties, and housemade cheese.
The official dessert choices are limited to the rice pudding with cardamom and gulab jamun, aka deep-fried milk powder balls, an Indian favorite. Mount Everest's are creamy in texture, piping hot, and drenched in a sugary syrup flavored with rosewater: yum. But an even better sweets option isn't listed on the dessert menu — pillowy naan drizzled with honey, a simple, satisfying meal-closer.
There are a few well-chosen wines and half a dozen insubstantial Himalayan and Indian beers available for sipping as well as a tasty but somewhat watery mango lassi. The service is exceptionally friendly, informative, and welcoming, and it's nice to come in out of the winter chill and be made to feel at home, especially with steaming platters of samosa, momo, aloo gobi, and bhatura on the horizon.