With Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year and Carnaval and Mardi Gras all converging within the same few days of the mid-February calendar, it's no surprise that Losar, Himalayan New Year, can get lost in the shuffle. Pink champagne, firecrackers, samba dancers, and laissez les bon temps roulez are all well and good, but shouldn't we celebrate the Year of the Iron Tiger, too? Of course we should, and if you don't happen to be a devout Hindu (or even if you are), the most festive way to cut loose is by wrapping your lips around some momo, thukpa, and other glories of the Nepali table.
That's where Berkeley's Everest Café comes in. Named for the tallest peak in Nepal — and, as a matter of fact, the world — the restaurant celebrates the cuisines of the old country and its neighbors, India and, to a lesser extent, China. Chef/owner Khagendra Dhungel opened the place in December, but his years of experience preparing the dishes of his native kitchen are evident in the food's tongue-tingling vitality, rich textures, and beautifully balanced flavors. The setting is as soothing and salubrious as the house cuisine: a cozy, friendly dining room decorated simply with flowers, wicker, teapots, and tapestries.
A fine way to kick off your New Year's celebration (beginning February 14, by the way) is with a platter of momo, the savory, steamed dumplings that are to Nepal what pelmeni is to Russia and manti is to northern China. Everest's crescent-shaped momo wrap tender, delicate casings around robust fillings of minced spinach, cabbage, cilantro, scallions, cashews, and mushrooms; the result was a mouth-filling treat that was even better with a spoonful of the accompanying brick-red tomato chutney. Or opt for pakoda, a light, crispy variation of Indian pakora with a minimum of grease and lots of actual vegetable content among the spiced butter and deep-fried coating. The papad (crisp wafers of peppery lentil flour) were nothing special, but another North Indian dish, samosa chaat, was irresistible. In the old country, chaat is another word for "snack plate," and here, several deep-fried, potato-filled samosas were mashed together and draped with yogurt, chutney, chickpeas, tomato, and cilantro: a rich, spicy platter of comfort food not unlike a subcontinental tamale pie.
Daal — puréed lentils — is Nepal's staple food, but Everest's daal soup was on the bland side despite its whispers of onion and cumin. A more effective response to the midwinter blues is a big bowl of thukpa, the sherpa's traditional festive fare during the celebration of Losar. Spicy, invigorating, and brimming with thick noodles, marinated chicken filets, carrots, broccoli, peppers, and cilantro, it's as hearty and comforting on a cold, drizzly night as the great chicken-noodle soups of legend.
Among the tarkari (vegetable curry) dishes on the menu is bhindi ko tarkari, a sweet, earthy stew of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and lots of crisp, cumin-laced okra that was so tasty and slimeless it gives the vegetable a good name. Another terrific entrée is the mixed tandoor, which arrives at the table in a dramatic cloud of steam. Marinated and baked in a clay oven aglow with hot coals, the platter's chicken, lamb, and jumbo prawns were smoky, juicy, and perfectly tender, served on a colorful and thoroughly edible bed of red onion, purple cabbage, green pepper, broccoli flowerets, and shredded carrots. The Everest Biryani Special also takes the inclusive approach to mealtime, combining succulent chunks of lamb, chicken, and prawn with currants, cashews, carrots, cauliflower, lots of al dente basmati rice, and a bazaar's worth of spices. Khukura Ko Masu Ra Chiyau (chicken with mushrooms) is a much simpler dish, but the tenderness of the meat, the sweetness of the mushrooms, and the subtlety of the spicing was a pleasant contrast to the fireworks of the other entrées.
The evening's simplest dish was goat curry, nothing but stewed meat with a hint of gaminess; the creamy, luscious texture of a good lamb shank; and a warm, spicy afterglow. To cushion all these rich and spicy flavors there's a raita studded with carrots and scallions; a delicate, rather flavorless crepe-like bread called babar; and six varieties of naan, the pillowy Indian flatbread, fresh from the tandoor oven. One was layered with melted cheese, another with mashed potatoes, green onion and cumin seeds; both were irresistible, especially with a dollop of the chunky, slightly lemony house mango chutney on top.
After all that sparkle and spice it's nice to balm the taste buds with a cool, soothing dessert, but Everest's meal-closers are entirely too pacifying. The house kheer (rice pudding) was watery and bland, with a squeeze of lemon and a lone cardamom pod providing only the barest hints of flavor. Gulab jamun, India's syrup-drenched, deep-fried milk-powder balls, offered a bit of texture and not much else. Another Indian specialty, ras malai, was initially intriguing — thick chunks of tart paneer (farmer's cheese) served in a thick, sweet milk sauce — but the end result was chalky and unexciting.
Vegetarians will find plenty of tasty options on Everest's menu: More than one-third of the restaurant's appetizers and entrées are meat-free. Start with the momo, samosa, pakoda or papad, a green salad, or a bowl of vegetable soup. Chow mein, biryani, and thukpa are available in vegetarian-friendly renditions. Among the entrées are tarkaris made with eggplant, okra, and vegetables of the season; tikka masalas of spinach and tofu; vegetable stews; a classic saag paneer; and wide-ranging preparations of potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, green peas, lentils, garbanzos, and mushrooms. To complement these are six varieties of naan bread as well as raita, pickles, and chutney.
Beverages include three of those pallid Indian lagers that go so well with spicy foods, plus a handful of wines and a few intriguing Tibetan beers. Two nonalcoholic drinks were especially tasty: a tall, cool glass of mango lassi, thick and creamy as a milkshake but not too sweet, and a hot, frothy Nepali chai with plenty of punch and a nicely balanced array of spices. Between them they pair perfectly with Everest's lush, invigorating, and absolutely celebratory cuisine.