Cafe Society

Tibet's Restaurant

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Where Sherpa's takes the very cool notion of being an adventurer's rest and runs with it, decorating the walls with ice axes and pictures of past mountain-climbing expeditions, Tibet's goes in another direction — using both the space and the menu to glorify, to share, to remember Tibet. There are prayer wheels by the door and Karmapa dream flags hung from the ceiling. Beside the short bar, a stone fountain flows beneath a garlanded picture of the current Dalai Lama and a gold Buddha sits, wreathed in incense, holding dollar bills. Buddha's eyes are everywhere — on banners, in the restaurant's logo — as are photographs of soaring mountains, endless stony plains and smiling, shaven-headed boys in purple monk's robes. It is a lovely, spacious and glowing room, peaceful and comforting, with a fire in the grate, full of the sounds of Tibetan music and the smells of Tibetan food.

On my first time through, I felt somewhat overwhelmed, somewhat lost in the wash of someone else's fond memories of a place I'd never been. But that happens to me a lot, and the trick is to just roll with it — to throw yourself fully into whoever's dream you've stumbled into — and so I drank cold mango lassi, broke pieces off the crisp papadum laid in the basket on the table and dipped them in cool yogurt, in tamarind chutney, in a kind of Himalayan salsa of chile and cumin and tomato, and waited for my order of momo to arrive. Momo are Tibet's version of dumplings, and dumplings are common to just about every cuisine on earth — eaten from Indianapolis to Paris to Lhasa and back again. And these momo were delicious: thick-skinned and chewy, the doughy skins wrapped around a core of spiced ground beef and filled with ghee (clarified butter, central to almost all Eastern cuisines from Africa, through India and north to Nepal). Bread is another common comfort of the topologically displaced, and while I have heard many expatriate New Yorkers and more than a few French immigrants complain about the impossible suckiness of bread made at Colorado's altitude, I have never heard a Tibetan bitch — because high-altitude bread is what a Sherpa will want, will crave: naan puffed and charred against the wall of a tandoor oven, flat paratha stuffed with potatoes, and Tibetan wheat bread, lightly fried, almost like a heavy American Indian fry bread.

By the time my saag arrived, I was already full, subsumed into the sounds, the smells, the flavors of another place that bears many similarities to Colorado's Rockies but is also completely alien, completely other. And with each bite of the saag, I was drawn farther away from this Louisville strip mall with its Dairy Queen and Chipotle franchises, laddering down an architecture of spice into a food culture defined and separated from Indian, from Mongolian and Chinese, by its austerity, by what isn't there as much as by what is. Tibetan saag is to Indian saag as a cup of water is to the sea. Both are water, one is simply more. Indian saag is a chorus of balanced spices singing across a solid baseline of creamed spinach. Tibetan saag — Uttam's saag — is garlic, ginger and cumin, spinach, onions and cream. And that's all. It is saag simplified, stripped down to absolutes and served rough-edged and full of bursting flavors. There is no subtlety, but neither is there anything hidden.

From the deliciously straightforward and pale-orange lamb tikka masala (made with tandoori lamb in a sauce of tomatoes, cream and onions) to the Himalayan curry (in a sauce of tomato, garlic, ginger and onion) and the chana masala (chickpeas with ginger and garlic in a tomato/onion/cream sauce), everything I ate at Tibet's was delicious, stripped bare of pretense or artifice, nearly ascetic in its presentation of flavors: This is lamb, this is paneer, this is a touch of cumin, a spark of garlic, a taste of caraway. The Tibetan comfort foods (the thukpa with homemade noodles that I swear must've once been the historical predecessor to the wheat-flour noodles of China, and thenthuk stew of lamb and potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and wheat-dough dumplings) were the same, only marked with the added sense of historical, generational solace that someone else might feel for a traditional cod chowder, a bowl of champ, a ball of sweet rice.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan