Brazil and Nepal Hook Up at Katmandu Spice
It's the quintessential New York buddy story: Two friends from Woodside—one Brazilian, one Nepalese—decided to open a restaurant. But they squabbled over what to serve: One loved the grilled steaks and coconut-milk-laced stews of his South American homeland; the other adored the meat jerkies and outsize dumplings of Nepal. So against the advice of others, they decided to fuse both cuisines in a single restaurant, and Katmandu Spice was born. It may be the only Brazilian-Nepalese restaurant in the world.
Though a mere two blocks from the 7-train stop at 61st Street and Roosevelt Avenue, the place is a bit difficult to find, since you have to dogleg left on Woodside Avenue through a pocket park filled with children of more ethnicities than can easily be identified. The restaurant façade is dominated by a concrete wheelchair ramp leading into a wide, shallow dining room clad in lacquered woods, with little in the way of embellishment except a Buddha head in a niche. As it happened, one of the friends moved back to Brazil, leaving the other guy in charge, hence the Asian vibe. Quite gloriously, the tall windows swing open, making you feel like you're dining outdoors—so sit by a window if you can.
The place styles itself on the awning with a confusing tumble of words and initials: "Brazilian BBQ Asian Fusion." More accurately, the menu features mainstream Brazilian dishes from several regions, a selection of grilled meats that can be had with either South Asian or South American flourishes, pan-Himalayan standards readily available at other Nepalese and Tibetan restaurants in the area, and—odd man out—some Indo-Chinese food sprinkled here and there. Not identified as such on the menu, the last represents a cuisine recently invented in India, configuring Chinese food for Indian tastes. Maybe that's what the awning calls "Asian Fusion."
Wading through the lengthy bill of fare might give you a tiny headache, especially if you're bent on identifying what is what, cuisine-wise. Accordingly, here's a key to some of the best dishes in each category. For Nepalese cuisine, you can't beat thanthunk ($9), which sounds like the pluperfect form of some long-forgotten English verb. Instead, it's a soup with a light but garlicky broth, rife with fleecy homemade noodles of irregular shape, daikon radishes, strips of beef, and—thrown in at the last moment so they barely wilt—baby spinach leaves. The massive, purse-shaped dumplings called momo are massively forgettable; snack instead on sukuti (beef jerky, $7) or gyuma (Tibetan sausage), both of which come tangled with sautéed sweet peppers. The vegetarian alternative (and this is a place with many such options) is "organic tofu," deposited in an agreeable red sauce something like Texas chili.
The Brazilian portion of the menu, which the departed buddy taught the kitchen staff to expertly cook before leaving, includes the brilliant Bahian signature bobo de camarao ($16), a wealth of shrimp in a rich sauce laced with herbs, coconut milk, and dende, the orange oil that underpins much of northern Brazilian and West African food. I haven't tasted better, even in Newark's Ironbound. Though the casserole of chicken and hearts of palm layered with mashed potatoes called escondidinho sounds dodgy, it beats the pants off English shepherd's pie, and the rotund cheese pastries called pao de quiejo are also ably prepared, three to an order. Farofa accompanies the Brazilian entrées, a heap of toasted manioc meal that should be sprinkled over everything.
There's no contest when it comes to the grilled meats—they should be ordered in the Brazilian fashion, served with white rice, black beans, farofa, and a puckering vinaigrette something like Mexican salsa. Of the seven cuts offered—which will already be familiar if you've been to the city's churrascarias—picanha ($16) is the most desirable, a thick tri-tip steak with a buttery gloss on the surface. The exception to the rule that you shouldn't order the barbecue Himalayan-style is the Katmandu special ($15) of sausage, beef chunks, and chicken wrapped in bacon, which sprawls among the Nepalese accompaniments of lentils, Indian-style pickle, and a too-bland tomato sauce.
Finally, there's the Indo-Chinese stuff. The crowd-pleasing favorite is "chicken lollipops" ($6)—four wings with the flesh pushed up on one end, crusted with a nice gingery glaze. You can also get Indo-Chinese entrées of chili chicken, chili pork, or chili beef—all much blander than the name suggests. But, like the children in the playground you passed through on the way, wouldn't you rather just have the lollipops?
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