I was talking with an employee at Himalayan Spice, a new outpost of Nepali cuisine off Clairmont Road, when the conversation turned to the beauty of the Himalayas. When I asked if he missed those mountain vistas, he replied that there were places near Atlanta almost as good. I asked him where. "Oh, what is that place," he replied, "... Dollywood!" I smiled, took a few seconds to consider his response, then asked if maybe he was referring to the Great Smoky Mountains near Dollywood? "Yes," he replied, "the roads are winding and misty, just like Nepal."
I've actually been to Nepal once, well over a decade ago, but remember little of eating there other than a wonderful, warm plate of paratha on a frigid Kathmandu night. I do remember the sights, though, and Himalayan Spice sets the mood well. As you enter, strings of colorful prayer flags greet you overhead while paintings and photos of the mountains and people of Nepal draw you further in.
The menu starts with a page dedicated to Nepali cuisine before branching off into more traditional Indian dishes, which are also commonly eaten in Nepal. The more unusual Nepali fare draws heavily on northern Indian and Chinese influences, but also has an I-can't-quite-place-it quality that leaves you guessing which spices or techniques are at work. Most bites conjured up connections to other spice-forward cuisines, from the zippy kick of Thai salads to the murky depth of an African stew.
Like most Indian and Chinese foods, Nepali cuisine is not so much over-the-top spicy as it is well-spiced. An order of choila, marinated chunks of lamb or chicken mixed with red onion, garlic, and cilantro, calls to mind a Thai larb. A sprinkle of lemon juice provides tingly acidity, but toasted cumin notes tie it back to China and India. The badam and bhatmas sadeko — that's basically a crunchy roasted peanut and soybean salad — has a similarly acidic lime and cilantro profile. Our waiter suggested we order a beer with it, and he was right. In fact, most of the dishes here do well with a beer on the side, like the alu tama, a funky and earthy soup of black-eyed peas and potatoes that must have Louisiana somewhere in its lineage.
The humble momo is Nepal's answer to steamed dumplings. The chicken version is a simple pleasure, as juicy and fatty as a chicken dumpling can be. The vegetable momo feel a bit bland by comparison, and the fibrous texture of minced carrots and other assorted vegetables doesn't help the cause. Either way, a side of spirited tomato and dried chili dipping sauce give the dumplings a boost.
To sample several things at once, try the Himalayan thali plates. I tried the goat gravy thali, featuring tender bone-in goat swimming in a rich and meaty curry-like gravy. Similar to Indian thali platters, it comes with a simple lentil soup, rice, the alu tama, and thin and crispy papadum flatbread for dipping into this or that.
The Indian side of the menu spans the greatest hits of any northern Indian restaurant — tikka masala, dal, aloo gobi, biryani, tandoori chicken, saag paneer. While the Nepali dishes are certainly more unique, the Indian breads in particular are worth adding to your order. Both the flaky paratha and the pillowy naan come out hot, buttery, blistered and charred around the edges, and still fluffy in the middle. For dessert, the description for ras malai might not do much for you — small round curd cheese served with cold, sweet and thickened milk — but the dish itself makes for a subtly sweet finale to the meal. The cheese is nearly as mild as milk, lightly sweetened, with hints of cardamom, pistachio, and rose water.
While the service at Himalayan Spice is exceedingly friendly, there is sometimes a slight language barrier, so you may have to trust in their good intentions. It's not quite bargain dining either — the Nepali appetizers are mostly in the $5-$8 range and the bountiful thali plates come in around $14. But the intricacy of the seasonings, the pure unfamiliarity factor of most of the Nepali dishes, and the comfortable and colorful atmosphere make Himalayan Spice a worthwhile, adventurous outing.