Ramakant S. Kharel, owner of Mt. Everest restaurant in Evanston, had taken courses in restaurant and hotel management in his native Nepal, but after emigrating to the United States ten years ago he started over at the bottom. He worked on Devon Avenue, then as a busboy and a waiter at Chicago's Hotel Inter-Continental for five years, taking side jobs at private banquets. He wanted to experience the American fine-dining scene firsthand before opening his own place.
"To do a white-tablecloth restaurant, I had to understand the American mind-set," he explains. "People expect high-quality service, and I wasn't going to disappoint them."
The restaurant he opened a year ago, which offers a mix of Indian and Nepalese dishes, is a step up from bare-bones ethnic dining. The room is attractive and subdued; original paintings depicting scenes of Nepal blend nicely with the cream-colored wallpaper and tweedy carpet. And yes, it does have white tablecloths.
Kharel, who lives in Edgewater, had his eye on Evanston for a long time. "This is a cosmopolitan community with a sophisticated customer base," he says with a nod toward the busy scene outside his front windows. "In addition to being a college town, it's an easy drive from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs."
Tucked between India and Tibet, Nepal has a varied topography and a population of just under 25 million people, including more than a dozen ethnic groups speaking as many as 50 different languages. Lentils and rice are the cornerstones of the Nepalese diet. They're paired with vegetables to make daal bhaat tarkaari, eaten throughout the country on an everyday basis.
That dish is more nutritious than exciting, however, and Kharel opts instead for jhane ko dal, a saute of lentils, cumin seeds, chopped ginger, garlic, tomato, and onion. The same ingredients are paired with potatoes in a dish called tareko aloo. The seasoning in both cases is complex, the "heat" level relatively low.
Six of Mt. Everest's eight Nepalese entrees are vegetarian. Meat is expensive, and most Nepalese are vegetarians for economic rather than religious reasons. When meat is served, it's typically goat or chicken. The first is more expensive, and it's also more popular. Similarly seasoned stewed dishes made with each are on the menu.
The three Nepalese appetizers are all made with chicken. One of them, momo, has Tibetan roots. A variation on the filled-pasta format, momo is reminiscent of steamed Chinese dumplings--and "many of the spices are the same," Kharel says. "They're used in different proportions and combinations, however, so the flavors don't overlap."
What really sets the momo apart is the accompaniment. Called aachar, it's as versatile as Indian chutneys. This version looks like a coarse-ground Dijon mustard and has much the same consistency. Made with tomato and pistachio nuts and seasoned with ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, and turmeric, the aachar's aggressive seasoning complements the mild flavor of the minced chicken and cabbage used in the filling.
Rounding out the menu are the more familiar curries, kabobs, and tandoori dishes indigenous to northern India and the Punjab, which straddles the India-Pakistan border. Many of the immigrants who streamed into Delhi after British rule ended in 1947 opened restaurants specializing in their native cuisine. Tandoori cooking was an almost instant hit, but it never migrated to the home kitchen. In India, this was--and still is--restaurant food. Mt. Everest's Nepalese dishes, on the other hand, are home cooking.
Chef Tek Chand is from Nepal, but after living in Delhi for 18 years, he's thoroughly conversant with Indian cuisine. A meal that includes dishes from both traditions is highly recommended: Kharel suggests ordering the Nepalese vegetarian platter and supplementing it with one or two meat dishes. Basmati rice and roti (a whole wheat flatbread) are included in the platter, as is kheer, a rice dessert made with milk, raisins, rosewater, and almonds, and a cooling raita made with chopped cucumbers and roasted cumin seeds. Of all the beverage options, Himalayan tea is probably the most distinctive. Black tea enhanced with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger, the fragrant brew is more than a match for the spicy food. And so, for that matter, is Kharel.
Most nights, he works the room like an old pro--seating customers, answering questions, and assuring people that the kitchen can adjust seasoning levels to order.
"People worry about the spicing," says Kharel. "I tell them to relax, to let me do the worrying. That is my job, after all."
Mt. Everest is at 618 Church in Evanston, 847-491-1069. --Barbara Revsine
Food & Wine magazine has selected two local chefs for their annual top-ten Best New Chefs award: Sandro Gamba of NoMi and Kelly Courtney of Mod.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.