Cafe Society

If you want to conquer Mt. Everest, the lunchtime buffet is the way to go

Do you want more goat?"

A tiny man was watching as I made my way along the buffet, ladling bright-orange chicken tikka masala and dark-green saag paneer onto a pile of rice, then adding a couple of golden-brown vegetable samosas, their flaky pastry too hot to touch. I'd already speared a hunk of tandoori chicken, scooped up something called vegetable curry — which, with its odd, grainy texture, in no way resembled vegetable curry except for the vegetable part — and was nearing the end of the line.

But yes, as a matter of fact, I did want goat. In fact, I wanted anything gamey, anything representative of the Nepalese cuisine I was hoping for as I'd sped south down Sheridan Boulevard to the shabby strip mall that houses Mt. Everest Restaurant & Bar, which Sabina Pradhan and Meena Sherpa opened five months ago in what had been the Japanese Kitchen. The owners hail from Nepal, and both the name of their restaurant and the last name "Sherpa" suggested Tibetan fare. I'd envisioned a menu full of dumplings, soups and thick, pan-fried noodle dishes, all bursting with roasted yak or water buffalo or, if I was really lucky, blood sausage made from high-altitude bovines. Hearty food for a frustratingly cold April day that, after a few teasingly warm afternoons, felt utterly bleak. Instead, with no small measure of disappointment, I'd found an Indian lunch buffet.

But at least I could eat goat, an off-menu special. The man disappeared through the kitchen door and returned with a container that he used to refill one of the metal compartments. "Be careful," he said with a grin. "Bones."

I served myself more steaming, fluffy basmati rice from the rice cooker on the table next to the line and covered it with the soupy brown curry. The earthy yet delicate curry was redolent of coriander and cumin, punched up with the gingery zing of turmeric and brimming with pungent chunks of goat that had indeed been roasted on the bone. The edges were crisp, the meat beyond tender and laced with smoke. I wound up ignoring the rice and picked up the bones with my fingers, using my teeth to get every last morsel.

I stopped lamenting the lack of yak.

Aside from the goat, almost everything on the buffet that day was an Indian standard, slightly Westernized and solidly executed. The crispy samosas — pastry triangles plump with soft potatoes, sweet, translucent onions and peas, and infused with garlic and ginger — were deceptively light. The saag paneer, spinach cooked to a thick stew and studded with salty cubes of paneer cheese, had a surprising kick of lingering cumin. And I could have eaten an entire bird's worth of the tandoori chicken. Marinated in yogurt, cayenne pepper and chile powder, the thigh had been baked in a traditional clay oven, and was succulent and slightly tart, the skin flecked with char.

I'd holed up with my feast in one of Mt. Everest's booths, where I could add the cayenne pepper and dried chiles I'd snagged from the line to each dish. The tomato-and-cream-based chicken tikka masala didn't need much doctoring; it had a slow-burning heat that built slowly. A server had brought a basket of hot naan the moment I'd sat down, and I used the doughy flatbread to chase every last trace of sauce from my plate. I finished my lunch with gulab jamun: buffalo-milk-based dough laced with cardamom that's formed into balls and deep-fried, then soaked in sweet syrup until the pastry is completely saturated, sagging with sticky moisture. After making my way through dessert, I was sagging, too, and wondered if I had time for a nap before heading back to the office.

Mt. Everest's dining room seemed like a fine spot for one. The dark space is filled with plush booths upholstered in gold and dozens of tables set in anticipation of a rush — although every time I've stopped in, there have been only a handful of other parties. A large wooden bar, lined with bottles of light Asian beer, borders one wall; the buffet line is set against another, with a window that provides a view of the kitchen. Large windows in the other walls provide unromantic views of the strip-mall parking lot on one side and Sheridan Boulevard on the other. The instrumental Indian music coming through the sound system gives the setting a heady ambience, like brain-addling incense without the sickly smell. The entire setup seems designed to lull you to sleep after a big meal; instead, I grabbed the check and a takeout menu and got out.

Back at my desk, I scrutinized the menu and was glad to see several Nepalese dishes, including momo dumplings and thupka, a soup brimming with fat noodles. Otherwise the board is mostly a cross-section of Indian fare not rooted in any particular region of that subcontinent: roasted tandoori, tomato-based vindaloo and biryani, basmati rice dishes dotted with sweet raisins and flakes of coconut.

And I was soon back in the dining room for dinner, looking for the dishes that aren't available at lunch — although that buffet, which is limited to just ten or so savory dishes and a couple of sweets, provides a representative sampling of most of Mt. Everest's menu. I was barely in my booth when a server brought over a basket of bread — this time papadum, the thin, bubbly, cracker-like flatbread — and spicy chai tea, with milk and honey on the side. When I ordered the stir-fried chicken noodle, a Nepalese dish, I got a smile from the server. "My favorite," she said, and winked. It soon was my favorite, too: The massive platter held a tangle of pencil-thick buckwheat noodles and thin strips of chicken, so deliciously brined that they were practically cured, as well as shreds of carrot, rounds of scallion and tiny florets of broccoli. Dried peppers gave the noodles both their vibrant orange hue and enough heat that I eventually had to breathe out of my mouth. And although the entire mound of food was coated with oil, it was more slicked-up than greasy — the very best kind of stir-fried noodle.

I'd ordered another Indian dish, the chana masala, which was also particularly good; the thick chickpea stew made with onions and tomatoes had been seasoned not just with garlic, ginger and chiles, but also mango powder and pomegranate seed, which gave it a citrusy, almost floral, underpinning. In fact, through several meals at Mt. Everest, the only missteps I've encountered were that quasi-vegetable curry and the vegetable momo: steamed Nepalese dumplings stuffed full of potatoes and onions and served with a chunky tomato sauce that was strangely earthy and did nothing to enhance the mild, sweetish paste inside the gluey wrappers.

Still, if you want to conquer Mt. Everest, the all-you-can-eat lunchtime orgy is the way to go. After all, it's the only time you can get your goat.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk