Spice and Spirits: A ghost may haunt Yak and Yeti, but that doesn't explain the inconsistent menu
It's Sunday night at Yak and Yeti, and most of the tables in the upstairs alcove are full. I find myself whispering over our feast, desperately trying to keep my table's conversation private.
"WHAT?" my father yells. "WHAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU WHEN YOU MUMBLE."
I feel so self-conscious that it's difficult to talk. Maybe it's because the last time I was in this restaurant, I couldn't avoid listening to every word of an incredibly awkward first date taking place two tables away. Maybe it's because I'd rather not have everyone in the vicinity know that my party is ordering five hearty entrees and three appetizers for four people. Or maybe it's because, at some level, I'm afraid of ghosts.
In the rare moments of silence that hang in the rooms of the big yellow mansion that houses this restaurant, I can almost hear Cora, the woman who allegedly hung around to haunt the place after falling down a flight of stairs, screaming up from the floor boards. I definitely wouldn't want to be here alone after dark.
Dol Bhattarai bought the circa-1860s farmhouse after the Cheshire Cat Brewpub — which had brought the dilapidated building back to life, filling it with house-crafted ales and bangers and mash — closed in 2008. He already owned one Yak and Yeti, on Sheridan in Westminster, and thought this would be the perfect spot for a second Indian restaurant serving the western suburbs. He also planned to use the brewpub's beer-making equipment to create a roster of ales to match his cuisine, selling those beers exclusively at his two outlets.
But he got more than beer-making equipment at this location. Bhattarai had heard about Cora — the house's previous owners claimed that a friendly uncle of the original family haunted the rooms as well — but after Yak and Yeti employees reported a series of strange occurrences late at night, last year he brought in the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society to inspect the house. Investigators Matthew Baxter and Bryan Bonner debunked most of the incidents with logical explanations, but their camera also captured a moving chair that they have yet to explain, and the building became the focus of a number of TV stories on haunted houses. Bhattarai is bringing back the team this week for a follow-up investigation. In the meantime, he's not hiding any of the paranormal possibilities: They're mentioned on the website, and the reserved waiters will talk about the things they've seen while working, speaking with a slight hesitation that carries over to their service.
I'm not sure what I believe when it comes to the elusive beyond, but this place is undeniably saturated with history that can't be hidden by the colorful Tibetan peace flags and photos of mountains that now adorn the old walls. There's also no disguising the dark, drafty corners that swallow all light. Even when the restaurant is full, which it is most nights, the atmosphere isn't exactly cheery — but the other patrons, and their conversations, are distracting enough to ward off spooky thoughts.
So is trying to solve the puzzle of why the food is so inconsistent. The vegetable samosas, fried triangular dumplings full of curried mashed potatoes and onions, are perfectly crisp and delicate at one dinner — but when I order the appetizer again with my family, I'm so disappointed by the doughy and undercooked lumps that I don't want to finish. The baskets of naan that hit the table with every meal display varying degrees of success: Some slices are lightly crisp and decadently delicious, others squishy and sagging under the weight of too much oil. An order of chicken tikka masala, an Indian staple that has yogurt- and curry-marinated poultry bathing in a creamy tomato stew, is well seasoned and savory, but the chicken, so painstakingly prepared, has cooked a few minutes too long in the sauce after coming out of the oven and is overly chewy. With the chana masala, though, the tender chickpeas clearly benefit from extra cooking time in that same mouthwatering sauce.
The inconsistencies are most apparent with the lunch buffet, which features twenty or so dishes that are like pale ghosts of dinner favorites, served under-seasoned and under-warmed. The kitchen generally lowers the spice level for its perception of the American palate — when I'm setting my own heat, I find "hot" to be the proper balance between zip and flavor — and lowers it still further at lunch, when most of the offerings are muted for the masses. On the buffet, the chicken tikka masala lacks any redeeming savory spiciness, rendering it boring in addition to overcooked. But the help of a rice cooker has made the basmati rice fluffy, and the featured tandoori is perfectly cooked, spicy, juicy chicken legs. At $8.95 for all you can eat, I can find enough here to put together a decent lunch, even if I wind up eating my weight in buttery sweet carrot pudding.
By far the best dishes on the menu are the ones that draw from Bhattarai's Nepalese heritage. He learned to make Indian food while working in restaurants in New Delhi before coming to the United States in 1996, where he picked up a job cooking at the Taj in Boulder. When Bhattarai opened the first Yak and Yeti in 2002, he combined what he'd learned at those restaurants with the dishes he'd gotten from his mother and sister, which incorporate colder-weather grains, like buckwheat, and show the influence of neighboring China. There are just three Tibetan entrees on this menu, though, and I wish there were at least ten more. The momo platter showcases Nepalese dumplings: slick, opaque dough pinched over heady fillings of chicken or potatoes and served with a fresh, tangy vegetable chutney. The Tibetan noodles are delicious, too, the long, thick pasta covered with expertly spiced sautéed cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and mushrooms, as well as succulent lamb or chicken. The thupka, a traditional Tibetan noodle soup, douses those same fat noodles and more vegetables in a steaming broth.
To wash everything down, there's a line of beers made by a former Rock Bottom brewer, Chris Kennedy. Bhattarai hopes to bottle the ales someday, though right now they can barely brew enough to supply the two dining rooms and the dark bar, which is often filled with patrons who come just to imbibe. One of the favorite Yak and Yeti beers is the Chai Stout, with a spicy sweetness that pleasantly permeates the coffee and chocolate notes; I prefer the Namaste Pilsner, a light, crisp beer that does a better job of cutting heavily spiced cuisine. I also like the IPA for its classic style, but it's so well-hopped and bitter that one dining companion wanted to rip out her tongue after one sip. There's also a full bar and an inoffensive wine list, with a few by-the-glass selections, like the Kung Fu Girl Riesling, that pair particularly well with this type of food.
By the time the check comes — along with the inevitable to-go boxes, since it's tough to make a dent in these deceptively tiny platters — I'm slightly tipsy and so full that I momentarily forget my father's loud questions, the conversations going on around me, the spirits lurking in the walls. The first step on a creaking floorboard, though, and it all comes back, as other diners look up to watch us exit into the warm twilight. It's unsettling for a meal to end with an unresolved mystery. And as we pull out of the parking lot, I find myself looking for ghosts in the windows until Yak and Yeti fades away in the rearview mirror.
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