The Spice Road
Himalayan Fusion and Taste of India
Of all the Restaurant Week chefs who talked about their favorite ingredients leading up to the event, only Nabin Lama of Himalayan Fusion and Kamal Khatri of Taste of India named the same two items. Even with the litany of spices used in Indian cooking, from Southern India to Nepal, Lama and Khatri both picked two simple staples.
“Ginger and garlic,” Lama said. “I like using ginger and garlic more than the other Indian spices like cumin, coriander powder, or garam masala.”
Lama said Himalayan Fusion, which he describes as making “standard Indian food,” marinates each of its meats in ginger and garlic prior to putting them in the tandoori oven for cooking. As for the curries the restaurant produces, ginger and garlic goes in a bit before the meat is cooked through. The restaurant isn’t breaking new ground here, but Lama said he and his ex-wife struggled to find decent traditional Indian cooking years ago when they came to this country, and they decided they would “do it better.” As you might guess, he says they’ve achieved the goal.
Khatri said Taste of India uses a garlic and ginger paste to flavor almost every dish on the menu. Mixed with a few other Indian spices, the paste is the key to the restaurant chain’s homemade sauces.
The two Downtown Mall Indian spots aren’t carbon copies, though. Beyond the obvious differences in décor and location, they each have a nuanced take on “spice.” Lama said that when his restaurant opened, he was inclined to tone flavors down for the American palate. He’s since reversed course, as diners repeatedly asked for more kick. Khatri is careful to distinguish between “spice,” the true flavors of Indian cuisine, and “spicy,” the sometimes-overpowering heat many Americans have come to expect in South Asian food.
“The food is not [necessarily] ‘spicy,’” Khatri said. “But the level of spice can be. We can make the food really spicy. If you go some places and ask for a chicken curry that is spicy, you will only get the spice and not the flavor of the food.”
Khatri, with a laugh, said he “guarantees” the flavor of his food. Mark that one more count on which these two Nepali-owned Indian restaurants say the same thing.
Rapture and The Southern
You are the geeky younger sibling of the cool high school kid. Your older sister wears hip clothes and dates all the hot guys. You tag along and hope to be considered cool by proxy.
You are the restaurant attached to Rapture or The Southern Café and Music Hall.
“Our aesthetic is grandma’s rock and roll basement. What we want is for someone to walk into our space and feel very welcomed,” said co-manager of the Southern Melissa Ketola-Flagge, before adding—presumably when her cooler, older sister walked by—“with, at the same time, a little bit of that edge.”
Ketola-Flagge and her husband William Flagge have been running the Southern’s restaurant since the concert venue reopened last summer under new management. They’ve since been trying to rebrand the space as a viable dining option even when there’s no band a-rockin’.
The couple might look to Rapture as an archetype for how it’s done. Chef Chris Humphrey’s kitchen and dining room have effectively carved out their own niche well separate from the notorious late night music and dance club in the back of Rapture.
“It’s sometimes a challenge, but on Friday nights it works out great,” Humphrey said. “People know they can sit down and have a dinner with good, locally sourced, sustainable food, and then go get wasted and listen to a deejay in the back.”
Not that locally sourced and sustainable means the food is too fancy for the getting-wasted-in-the-back crowd. A self-described hillbilly, Humphrey focuses on cooking the way his family has cooked in this neck of the woods for decades. Case in point, his latest creation: house-cured pork belly, deep fried and served on a sweet potato pancake, topped with granola and Virginia maple syrup gastrique.
No surprise here—the Southern also rolls out a country-cooking aesthetic. All of the restaurant’s meats are smoked, a result of Flagge’s obsession with pulled pork and brisket. The humble potato is featured in a number of dishes, a holdover from the couple’s background as owners of Delicious George, a food cart from which they sold gourmet French fries primarily at music events.
Humphrey, like Flagge, said he’s very into pork these days, and you’ll consistently find it on his menu. Ketola-Flagge, on the other hand, is a vegetarian, so the Southern does everything it can to keep meat out of dishes that aren’t meat focused.
“There is no bacon in [the collard greens], and our baked beans are vegetarian,” she said. “One of our goals was for a table to sit down with a gluten free person, a vegetarian, a vegan, and a meat eater and for everybody to have a satisfying meal. I think we’ve accomplished that.”