Himalayan Restaurant and Bar offers "a new take on homegrown Indian/Nepalese food," according to its owners, and even those unfamiliar with the region's traditional cuisine can agree that this restaurant hits high marks.
While Indian and Nepalese restaurants are still a bit of a novelty in the suburbs, at least in large part to non-Indian patrons, the existence of three Himalayan outposts -- Gurnee, Bloomingdale and Niles -- is evidence of the cuisine's appeal and the restaurant's success.
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The Himalayan3747 Grand Ave., Gurnee, (224) 637-3000, himalayanrestaurant.com
Setting: Moderately quiet, white tablecloth restaurant with a subdued elegance
Entrees: $10.95 to $18.95
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Owners Vivek Raj Kunwar and Kiran Byanjankar and chef Bishnu Subedi comprise the trio behind the unique chain, and they certainly have figured out how to make this cuisine accessible.
On a recent Sunday night visit to the Gurnee location (the newest of the three; the original Niles spot opened eight years ago) the darkly carpeted and white tablecloth restaurant was filled with a diverse crowd attended to by an exceptionally attentive and pleasant staff.
After the customary papadum (crisp flatbread) and a duo of chutneys -- one a refreshing mint, the other a sweet plum -- we ordered a glass of crisp Indian chardonnay from the well-rounded wine list. Beers from the region also are available.
A Nepali appetizer called vegetable momo with its minced vegetables marinated in mild Nepali spices folded into soft flour wraps and steamed looks not very different from dumplings you'd find at Asian or Eastern European restaurants. Here, though, they are served with a special spicy sauce that can be customized from kid-friendly mild to extra hot.
Separated into different categories like meats (chicken, seafood, and lamb), vegetarian, tandoor and Nepali, the menu, seemingly identical at the three locations, leans on many of the classic sauces like curry, tikka masala and vindaloo. On the tandoor side, here, too, we found traditional chicken and lamb kebabs and chicken tikka.
The looks on fellow diners' faces as they dug into sizzling hot tandoor plates almost had us second-guessing our decision to opt for the more stewlike dishes. The latter was probably due to a subconscious desire for the absolutely gorgeous naan breads coming out of the kitchen, two of which -- a pillowy plain and a buttery garlic variety -- were sinfully good at sopping up stew sauces.
Should you not mind getting your fingers a bit messy, definitely opt for the Nepali khasi ko masu: goat meat cooked village-style in herbs and spices that you pull off the bone and dip into a delicious sauce.
We were (for the most part) partial to a knife and fork, and the Indian boneless lamb vindaloo seemed a good option for a tasty, non-messy affair. A deep brown, Goan-style curry sauce poured in a ceramic boat-shaped dish covered the bite-size, tender and mostly lean chunks of lamb. An order of the jeera rice -- Basmati rice tossed with whole, toasted cumin seeds -- added a wonderful aromatic depth and a slight crunch.
A side dish of aloo gobi -- potato and cauliflower simmered in a thick tomato sauce deepened by onion, ginger, garlic and herbs -- also proved tastier when eaten with naan.
The most stunning dish of the night -- and perhaps one of the most intricately prepared -- was undoubtedly the chicken makhani. Literally translated as butter chicken, the dish combines the best of both worlds: the tandoor method but with a rich, buttery sauce. The tomato-based sauce itself is the striking color of blood orange and cream (it was revealed the pigment was aided a bit by food coloring), and the chicken is shredded and tender thanks to an overnight soak in yogurt infused with ginger, cumin, turmeric and other spices and the heat of the clay tandoor oven.
Desserts in an Indian restaurant almost always border on cloying -- take the gulab jamun, fried round dumplings soaked in cardamom syrup, or rice pudding, as examples. But The Himalayan's homemade mango ice cream made a perfectly fine treat for ending the meal. A dessert amuse of stewed carrots in sugar provided a grainy, sweet counterbalance to the ice cream.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.