This is a cheery, heartfelt ethnic restaurant employing only Nepalese staff. By the time I left I felt like I had learned many things about the cuisine and the people of Nepal, and felt very warmly towards them. This is not the first time I have eaten Nepalese food - I lived close to the Nepalese restaurant on Crown Street (The Nepalese Kitchen) and dined there a number of times, and I tried Yak and Yeti in Glebe - however this was the most memorable Nepalese meal I have had.
Resist any temptation to lump Nepalese food into the Indian basket, and hurry in to try char-grilled offerings like the Chicken Chwela ($13.90) - it’s fresh, fragrant and unique with a decent amount of heat. I liked the contrast of charred chicken against the raw red onion for crunch and freshness. I definitely preferred this dish to similar Indian dishes (like Chicken Tikka or Tandoori Chicken).
Enjoy the simplicity of moist Grilled Prawns ($20.90) expertly blackened and served on potato cakes with salad. This dish is so accessible to a Western palate - prawns on potato cakes with salad.
Charming staff offer up a piece of culture with your meal, making it more of a cultural exchange. While we enjoyed this dish, the waiter was telling us about Nepalese people in Australia. Most of the 30,000 people are students and 1500 are currently studying hospitality. That's a lot of Nepalese food about to hit our market when they graduate! They all grew up in Kathmandu - according to the waiter, people from regional areas would never have the money to leave Nepal.
Vegetarians should leave with a smile too; lentils are well used in both the lentil cake on the Mixed Entree ($11.90) and in a lovely, mild Daal ($14.90). The Goat Curry ($18.90) was tasty too.
Our waiter had a cheerful optimism and an enthusiasm for all things Nepalese. It presents a good opportunity to ask about food in Nepal and if you are considering traveling there, this would be a great place to get advice on where to stay and when to travel.
Nepalese people mostly eat in the home. They share food from the one plate as a family. It would be unthinkable for our waiter's Nepalese family to eat before everyone was home. He took delight in us enjoying the cuisine, and one day plans to open a restaurant himself. I got the impression he was working for a song because he believed he needed to gain valuable experience.
The Aloo Ko Achar ($5.50) deserves a place in everyone’s order – it’s a wonderful yellow bowl of boiled potato pickle with blackened fenugreek seeds that’s compelling and easy to digest. There is an amazing smoky flavour to the fluffy, vinegared potatoes garnered by blackening the fenugreek seeds in smoking mustard oil and vegetable oil. The first mouthful is weird, but after that it's quite compeling, and strangely like potato salad without the mayonnaise.
Nepalese cuisine seems simpler than Indian, without being simple. There was a clarity of flavours overall that I liked.
We were given a dessert sampler (probably not something you could order, they were just keen for me to try a whole bunch of things) which ended up looking a lot like trifle (a dish I have a dislike for from childhood, the cacophany of flavours horrifies me). The base was Shikarni ($7.50) a very intense yoghurt. The yellow bits are house-made Mango Kulfi ($7.50) a condensed milk ice-cream. The ball is like a Gulab Jamun - in Nepal they call it Lalmohan ($7.50).
According to proud Chef Baldev Raut, most diners come because they have visited Nepal. He estimates this as forty percent of his business, and funnily enough the first group that wandered in while I was dining fell into this category. Some come to support the advent of new cuisines in a predominantly Italian area; some come to enjoy the takeaway special of two curries with rice for ten dollars. Whatever your reason, there’s a warm taste of Nepal here waiting for you to discover.
I'm a bit scared for this one, their optimism (perhaps a cultural one, from having a Buddhist background?) belies the current economic climate, the small number of Australians who have been to Nepal (and thus have an interest in the cuisine) and how tough a market Leichhardt is for any restaurant that is not Italian, much less an 'emerging cuisine'. To me though, this is so much about what I love about ethnic restaurants - food as a vehicle for understanding a culture, and meeting the people.
Leichhardt Nepalese Restaurant
131 Marion Street, Leichhardt
Ph: (02) 9568 6562