A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the way we romanticize ethnic restaurants and debate their "authenticity" if they deviate from native ingredients and recipes. Just in case anyone wonders, I certainly don't exclude myself from that tendency.
Thus, when I heard that a Tibetan restaurant had opened in Marietta, I made plans to visit the same evening. I've had a longtime fascination with Tibetan culture, mainly by way of Shambhala Training, a brilliant meditation program that was created by a Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for Westerners.
I've only had one Tibetan dinner in my life and that was at Lahassa in Paris. It included classics such as butter tea, momo dumplings, and a stew of yak or mutton. There wasn't a vegetable in sight, as I recall, and we found most of the food bland or, in the case of the butter tea, too weird for comfort. We became instant friends with a couple at the adjoining table. They had been to Tibet and said the food at Lahassa, where they dined frequently, was typical.
So I have no education besides that in Tibetan cuisine. What I do know is that the food at Shangrila Bistro (3545 Canton Road, Marietta, 678-388-7878) tastes a lot better to me than the food at Lahassa, probably precisely because it is less authentic. The restaurant, which is decorated with prayer flags and includes a table full of Tibetan bric-a-brac for sale, actually features Chinese food as well as Tibetan.
When we sat down, I immediately told the server that we only wanted Tibetan dishes. He explained that the Tibetan items were all identified on the menu. I glanced at it. Tibetan fried chicken wings? He directed our attention to two appetizer specials, spicy beef and dumplings stuffed with shrimp and chives. Shrimp?
"Do Tibetans eat shrimp?" I asked. The Himalayan country is called the "rooftop of the world." It seemed unlikely its people would eat seafood.
"You have to understand," our server replied, "that we are about creating Tibetan flavors, but our ingredients are local. We try to get yak, for example, but it is difficult."
We resigned ourselves to confusion and ordered the two starter specials. They kicked off a thoroughly enjoyable meal. The dumplings arrived with a crispy filigree atop them — a nice contrast to the chewy dough wrapping the ground filling. The spicy beef particularly surprised us. The tender slices of meat were tossed with scallions, cilantro, red vinegar, garlic and a rather strong chili.
"Tibetans eat hot food?" I asked the server. He launched a lecture about the main types of Chinese food and said that neighboring Sichuan had a strong impact on Tibet's cuisine, making some of it quite spicy. This was news to me, but Tibetan cooking is also heavily influenced by India, where chilies are also popular. In any case, very few dishes on the menu are marked "hot and spicy."
We ordered two entrées. The more exotic was braised lamb ribs served in a large chafing dish with a vegetable-filled broth that we ladled into soup bowls. This dish was on the menu for $29.95 but our server said it was half-price on weekends. Whatever, it was stunning.
But I was even more surprised by the plate of stir-fried beef that was cooked with an absolutely overwhelming amount of cumin. I don't typically even like cumin, but this dish was so deeply flavored, it was fascinating. Bits of cilantro were played against the cumin here and there.
Pure curiosity led us to order steamed eggplant with "peanut butter garlic sauce." I found the eggplant way overcooked and never could locate the taste of peanut butter, although the diced garlic was in easy view.
A second Shangrila is opening this summer in Sandy Springs. According to our server, the plan is to open 10 of the restaurants. I should warn you that the restaurant is quite small. Mostly, we saw people picking up take-out orders, and there were plenty of vacant tables. But it wouldn't take much of a crowd to pack the place.
Stop poisoning us!
In the last year, I have gotten sick after meals at three restaurants. I can't prove a restaurant's food made me ill unless a dining companion also gets sick. But it's pretty clear to me when the problem is restaurant sanitation.
I recently read that 11,000 New Yorkers go to hospitals every year because of food-borne illness. Because the number is rising, the city is now requiring restaurants to post the results of their health-department inspections in a prominent place. Fulton County already requires that.
However, it appears — reading the records of inspections here — that if a restaurant scores low, it is given an almost immediate chance to improve the rating before having to post it. I can't help wondering, given this, how accurate the posted ratings really are.
And don't think for a second that low ratings are limited to small restaurants. If you want to check a Fulton County restaurant's ratings, log onto www.fultoncountyga.gov/county/health and click on the link next to "our latest food inspection scores."