Nepalese Nibbles

An earthy and authentic escape for Eastern cuisine

The outdoor seating at Yak & Yeti: invoking the ambiance of a Nepalese eatery | Photo: Yak & Yeti

Dim lighting can be enticingly cozy, and a Nepalese restaurant in Vienna’s 6th District has taken this concept to the extreme. The first task after taking a seat in the courtyard of Yak & Yeti is to allow your eyes to adjust. I squinted to find a companion in the summer evening dusk who sat at a table at the back of the Schanigarten. A glass awning protruding from the building, from which the only suggestion of light emanated from wall-mounted candles, roofed the tables. If you are wearing a skirt or shorts, you might consider removing the hemp seat covers from the plastic chairs, which are rough as a hemp doormat, though charming at the same time.

A petite Nepalese waiter delivered our preordered Mango lassis – pulpy and clearly homemade, which hardly seemed surprising from a place that, at first impression, seemed to take authenticity very seriously. The skull of a yak was mounted behind us, inhabiting a wall along with South Asian relics of all sorts and sizes: Buddhist figurines, bamboo chimes and woodcarvings. A line of large prayer wheels spun beneath a wooden faux roof to one side of the seating area and round rice paper lamps swayed from a line above, next to another string of multi-colored light bulbs. A fountain murmured among trees and potted plants in the front of the courtyard, while vines and other greeneries hung from the walls and pillars. It far transcended kitschig, instead immersing guests in what could have been a modest family dwelling in the foothills of the Himalayas.

We went for the momo mix as a starter, which – consisting of 12 steamed and fried dumplings – was a satisfying selection. Beef, tofu, chicken, lamb, cheese, spinach and potatoes filled the dough, served with a small dish of tomato-chili sauce for dipping. Native to the Katmandu valley, momos are hearty, tasty little items. The modesty and authenticity came through here as well; this seemed like a dish that might be enjoyed by Nepalese farmers. Not necessarily striking, though one of the meat fillings gave a nice kick. The dipping sauce was suitably tangy, as anything more intense would have opposed the dumplings’ down-to-earth attitude.

The dishes on the menu possessed exotic names and seemed to resemble those found in neighboring countries, but only at times. As with the momo, which only vaguely resembled its Japanese relative gyoza or Chinese dim sum, most of the meals took on a personality quite removed from typical Westernized Asian fare. Curries accompanied Himalayan herb-laden dishes, okra, potatoes, cashew and saffron-themed creations and lots of lentils, most supplemented with rice. Earthy, rather than exotic, was perhaps the proper adjective.

I went for the Dal Bhat Tarkari, with the full intention of tasting from my companions’ plates: the Yak & Yeti vegetable and chicken specials respectively. Said to be a ‘national meal’ of Nepal, Dal Bhat Tarkari encompasses rice, kale, pureed lentils, potatoes and vegetable curry, served with a green vegetable-based sauce and red spice blend. The curry differed from Thai, Indian and Sri Lankan counterparts that I knew and loved, being more delicate and natural.  The spice accompaniment was fierce, truly spicy instead of just hot, revealing a particular concoction of herbs and chilies that was hard to decipher. It was mean in large doses, but brilliant in exposing the subtle herbs in the lentils and potatoes if used with care. The vegetable special was a similar herbivorous mix, with the addition of okra and a soft homemade cheese. The other special had one remarkable component, the cashew chicken: creamy, thick, saucy, hearty, unpretentious in the finest way. True comfort food.

The night set in, and more neighbors arrived and chatted quietly over candlelit tables. One companion recalled a restaurant he visited that fed its customers in total darkness, which seemed over the top under the circumstances as we struggled to see each other’s faces. To my disappointment, they eventually turned on the lights, though I suppose the waiters should be able to see where they were going.

I stole a peek inside to get the full effect. A tiny bar stood between the entrance and the door to the kitchen, next to shelves holding books and magazines dedicated to Nepal and Tibet. The dining area was small, and again it felt like entering the home of a Nepalese native. Wrinkled and weathered Buddhist and Hindu sketches hung above several tables, and red, blue and black hemp-like covers and pillows draped the benches. Like-colored rugs hung on the walls, along with more Buddhist figures, but also traditional household tools, cooking utensils and horns. More rugs were visibly stored in shelves near the ceiling, giving yet another impression of walking into someone’s home. I had never traveled to Nepal, but this restaurant was wetting my appetite, in more ways than one.

We paid and left, greeted by a hefty sign above the door to the outside street that said Namaste tashi deleg (goodbye in Nepalese), translated in German underneath. On the way home, I wondered about the length of a flight to Nepal, what I would do when I got there and what the locals might cook for me.

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