To experience the full range of Nepali fare at Dhaulagiri Kitchen, a cozy restaurant in Curry Hill, be prepared to defend your order. The servers here are unflaggingly kind and attentive, but also have a tendency to ask — in various, gentler ways than this, and always out of concern — “Are you sure you want that?” But just say yes; they’ll happily comply, and you will not regret it.
Dhaulagiri Kitchen is new to Manhattan, but not new to New York City. Owner Kamala Gauchan originally operated out of the cramped back half of Tawa Food, a chapati bakery in Jackson Heights. No sign announced Dhaulagiri Kitchen from the outside, and no more than a couple tables offered seating in what was practically the kitchen, but Gauchan — a native of Kathmandu — quickly earned a reputation for her food. The restaurant was featured on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, and written up in the New York Times. Then, this past spring, after four years in cramped quarters, Gauchan decided to move Dhaulagiri Kitchen to Manhattan.
Now she has a small but comparatively spacious restaurant on Lexington Avenue to call her own, a warm basement space where stenciled murals of Ganesh and Buddha cover the walls, and Nepali music videos play on a TV at the back. She also has a new clientele. Jackson Heights has a large Himalayan community, for whom restaurants like Dhaulagiri Kitchen offer a taste of home. But bringing in diners new to Nepalese food was part of Gauchan’s motivation to move to Manhattan, and it also may be why the servers take extra care to make sure no dish comes as a surprise.
And yes, it’s good to know that the dum aloo — a plate of steaming potato chunks fried in a dry curry paste — is quite spicy, but yes, you still want to order it. The thick, oily, tomato-based sauce is heavy with garlic, coriander, and other spices, making the potatoes many times more flavorful than the diner home fries they vaguely resemble.
It’s also OK that the noodles in the sandheko wai wai come out crunchy; it is, in fact, delightful. The dish, like something concocted by a teenager late at night, consists of uncooked instant ramen noodles (Wai Wai is a popular Nepali brand) broken up and tossed with onions, cilantro, garlic, chile powder, and lemon juice into a punchy snack. Eaten by the spoonful, it makes a great appetizer, though it also might make you wish the restaurant served beer, which would be an ideal accompaniment. Same goes for the momos, Himalayan dumplings which here come with a variety of succulent meat fillings, lightly spiced and heavy on the garlic.
Though it says so on the menu, a server will still warn that the samay baji, a set meal served here in a bento box, always comes with bhutun (or bhuttan as it’s occasionally spelled), a sautéed blend of chopped goat stomach, kidney, liver, and heart; this is a dish for offal lovers. It also comes with a choice of chicken, beef, or goat cooked in a hearty blend of spices and piled on top of the organ meat to temper their funk. On the side: mild curried chickpeas, a variety of tart pickles, crunchy roasted soybeans, and a pile of airy beaten rice.
If offal isn’t your thing, the thali, a set meal that includes meat, rice, curries, and pickles, offers a milder option. Served on a wide, round platter, it comes with a choice of goat, chicken, fish, beef, or “buff” (buffalo) sukuti, a preparation that involves first drying then stewing meat until it has a firm but pliant texture. There is also a vegetable option. Each thali also comes with a mound of rice, a serving each of vegetable curry and soupy dal (spiced lentils), and tiny piles of sautéed mustard greens, deep-fried bitter melon, and various fermented pickles. It’s a generous meal for under $15, enough to share between two people, especially considering the servers will happily replenish servings of everything but the protein.
Instead of rice, you can also order the same thali with dhendo, a lump of thick porridge made by stirring buckwheat and corn flours into boiling water until the texture is like lighter, stickier mashed potatoes. It’s bland and starchy, and I liked it for soaking up curry, though my server had his doubts.
Another time, as I resisted filling up on sandheko wai wai before my thali arrived, a different server offered to remake the appetizer, apparently concerned that it was too spicy. It’s rare that a restaurant offers to replace a dish unbidden, and a sign of some kind of exceptional hospitality to make a habit out of doing so. That, as much as the quality of the food, is why Dhaulagiri Kitchen should flourish in its new home. So stick to your guns, even if the servers express doubts; it’s only because they couldn’t let you leave unhappy.
124 Lexington Avenue