At the end of a yoga session, participants often stand with their hands placed together as if in prayer, bow to the instructor and say, "Namasté" -- Sanskrit for "I bow to the divine in you." The word, which is also a traditional Nepalese greeting, carries both respect and gratitude, acknowledging another's place in the universe and honoring him for it.
The Gurung family made a smart choice when they decided to name their restaurant "Namasté," pronounced na-ma-stay. Namasté, a year-old eatery in Lakewood's Mission Trace Shopping Center, is as welcoming as the salutation implies, serving the complex cuisines of India and Nepal in a simple space.
Purna and Hari Gurung moved to Boulder from Nepal in 1992, and worked at typical office jobs until they came up with the idea of starting their own restaurant. "My whole family loves food so much," Purna says. "There are Indian restaurants but not many that also offer some kinds of Nepalese food. These are my recipes, handed down through my family and cooked by my friends and family. We knew how to make this food, and we wanted to introduce it to this area." Their adult children, Arati, Sudeep and Archana, work in the eatery waiting tables and helping out in the kitchen, while the kitchen is run by Purna's brother-in-law, Naress Gurung, and family friend Beejaya Bhandard.
3355 South Wadsworth Boulevard, Lakewood
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Friday
11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Saturday
5-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Lunch buffet: $6.95
Saag paneer: $9.95
Lamb vindaloo: $11.95
Veggie korma: $8.95
Baigan bhartha: $8.95
Chicken thukpa: $7.95
Vegetable momo: $7.95
Meat momo: $8.95
Chicken tikka masala: $11.95
Gulab jamun: $2.95
The family orientation makes for a relaxed dining experience, with the employees all working well together to keep things flowing. While the standard strip-mall space -- low ceilings, difficult lighting and an unimaginative setup -- might benefit from some additional Nepalese or Indian decorations, the Gurungs get credit for keeping the two dining rooms clear so that servers can move about easily and diners have some breathing room at the well-spaced tables. Indian music plays in the background; white and burgundy linens, black lacquered chairs and the intermittent travel poster complete the picture. Even at lunch, when harried people from all walks of life take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet, a meal at Namasté is a quiet, calm repast.
Indian restaurants have curried favor with American diners through their inexpensive buffet spreads, and Namasté is no exception: For $6.95 per person, you can try a variety of dishes, all of them well executed. The selection changes almost daily, but you can count on such standards as vermicelli-flecked basmati rice; a spicy, tummy-warming version of the spinach-and-cheese dish saag paneer (also available as a vegetarian entree); and moist chicken tandoori with a heavy yogurt tang that comes from the marinade with which Namasté coats each piece before tossing it into the clay oven. The soup offering does change daily: One day it was a thin, chicken-soupy broth with floating lentils and small bits of soft, curry-colored chicken; another visit found a spicy, tomato-based concoction packed with carrots, peas and onions. But the bottomless basket of naan is a constant, and fans of India's unleavened, tandoor-baked breads will fall for Namasté's pillowy, steaming-hot loaves.
The true measure of an Indian restaurant lies in its use of spices, and Namasté passed the test with flying flavors. Garam masala is to Indian cooking what herbes de Provence are to French and berberé is to Ethiopian; the better the garam masala, the more deeply flavored the dish. An amalgam of dry-roasted, ground spices, such as black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, fennel, mace, nutmeg, coriander and cloves, garam masala can vary in quality depending on the freshness of the ingredients, the duration of their roasting and the proportions of each spice. Namasté's garam masala was top-notch, with a peppery sweetness rather than the cloying, too-rich combination some Indian restaurants favor; the saag paneer, in particular, packed quite a punch thanks to a generous application of this spice mixture. But other Indian dishes also benefited from the kitchen's clever use of seasonings. The lamb vindaloo featured exquisitely soft pieces of the meat in a thick tomato concoction that was fiery hot from chiles; the veggie korma showed Namasté's way with ghee-sautéed vegetables and ground cashews; the baigan bhartha combined tandoor-roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions, all spiced with cinnamon, mace and cloves.
Namasté also offers a handful of Nepalese dishes. Chicken thukpa, a noodle soup with a strong chicken base that makes the elixir seem almost medicinal, came with puri (or poori), a deep-fried, whole-wheat bread from Northern India. Momo put the main ingredients -- your choice of meat or vegetables -- inside a huge steamed dumpling, light and fluffy, with achar, a sweet and spicy pickled-pepper relish, providing an extra zing. As the Nepalese food becomes more popular, Gurung promises to add more. Still, the restaurant does so well with Indian fare that you wouldn't want to lose any of those dishes.
Ironically, one of Namasté's best dishes is also the least authentically Indian. Chicken tikka masala is now the most frequently served dish in Great Britain, according to the Guardian, which in a recent newspaper story claimed that the dish's popularity "has even managed to eat into sales of traditional British beers as curry lovers reach for that curry staple, Kingfisher." (The beer is brewed in India.) Chicken tikka masala is also said to be the Queen Mum's favorite dish; at the very least, it's the one she allegedly orders whenever she visits Veeraswamy, Britain's oldest Indian restaurant.
"Tikka" refers to the way the chicken is cut into tiny pieces, and that preparation existed in India before the British came in. But "masala" meant simply "spices" until some British chap convinced a Bangladeshi chef working in England to put gravy on tandoor-cooked chicken tidbits. Using what he had on hand, the chef -- whose identity has yet to be officially determined, since several claimed the creation -- made a sort of tomato soupy gravy for the bird, and chicken tikka masala took flight. Although no country has gone as goofy over the dish as Britain (in English markets you can buy chicken tikka masala pizza and chicken tikka masala pot pies), it appears on most Indian menus in the United States.
Indian food purists rightly point out that the preparation isn't truly Indian, but it's undeniably heavenly when done right. At Namasté, tender tandoori chicken swam in a cream sauce made from fresh tomatoes cooked down with onions for a zippy but rich taste that wasn't too sweet but still captured the sugariness of the tomatoes.
There's little on this planet more toothachingly sugary than gulab jamun, a dessert of Bengali origin that puts cakelike fried doughballs of dried milk in a rosewater-laced syrup. Namasté's gulab jamun was an unbelievably sweet treat, and the kheer, a runny rice pudding, was just slightly lower on the sugar chart.
Not surprisingly, we left on a sugar high note, feeling quite sweet on this inviting restaurant. A bow and "namasté" to you, Namasté.
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