Hanging on one wall of Kabab and Curry’s narrow dining room, tucked in among the neatly matted and framed paintings of Hindu gods, a larger-than-life portrait of a Tibetan Buddha comes as something of a surprise. But its presence in this colorful gallery is no accident. It’s a symbolic nod to a culture whose cuisine, it’s safe to say, few people in these parts had ever tasted before January, when Kabab and Curry opened in the old Frazier’s location on Hillsborough Street.
The cuisine? Nepalese, the native fare of owners Babu Dawadi and Upendra Thapaliya, veteran restaurateurs who come to the Triangle from Rhode Island, where they worked in a number of Indian and Nepalese restaurants.
You’ll find just a handful of Nepalese dishes sprinkled among the mostly-Indian menu at Kabab and Curry. But to any diner with an adventurous spirit, their exotic names are as enticing as Mount Everest and K2 are to mountain climbers.
But not nearly as challenging to explore. Momo, which you’ll find among the appetizer listings, turns out to be steamed house-made dumplings, served with a vibrant tomato-sesame-chile chutney that is their traditional accompaniment. The momo are offered in two versions, both worthy: minced fresh vegetables, and ground chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic and mild spices.
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You can also get the momo in an herb-spangled soup, served in ample portion for a light entree. Or try thukpa soup, chock-a-block with bits of tandoori chicken, mixed vegetables and noodles in a fragrant chicken broth.
Ask dining room manager Trilochan Bawadi, a distant cousin of Babu Dawadi, to recommend a Nepalese entree. He’ll find the time, between hosting duties, taking orders and covering for less-experienced wait staff, to point you with the reassuring confidence of an experienced sherpa, to the Thakali thali.
You’d be wise to take his advice. Your reward will be a kaleidoscope of curries, condiments, breads and sweets on a traditional thali platter. Some of these – tandoori chicken, dal, basmati rice, gulab jamun – will be familiar to fans of Indian cuisine. Others – a rich, coppery bone-in goat curry (boneless lamb is also available) and a Nepalese potato pickle called alu ko achar – will no doubt be new to many. Taken as a whole, the Thakali thali is a feast that is at once adventurous and comforting.
For the time being, that’s pretty much the extent of the Nepalese offering. According to Upendra Thapaliya, most Nepalese dishes are time-consuming to prepare. The owners plan to expand the selection as the kitchen gets comfortable with the current list.
In the meantime, the bulk of Kabab and Curry’s menu – an extensive list of Indian dishes whose names will be as familiar to fans of the cuisine as the images of those Hindu deities on the walls – offers plenty of tempting alternatives.
That’s not to say that the Indian offering is lacking in the surprise department. Among the usual pakora suspects, you’ll find a distinctive coconut-shrimp fritter. Traditional samosas are available with fillings of minced lamb or potatoes and peas, but if you’re looking to change up the routine, try samosa chaat: vegetarian samosas, cut up and tossed with onions, chickpeas and chaat masala in a sweet-and-savory amalgam of tamarind and mint sauces.
The tandoori mixed grill delivers the goods in the form of chicken (tandoori and tikka), lamb (spice-marinated cubes, grilled medium-well), seekh kabab (lean minced lamb blended with fragrant herbs and spices) and a couple of nicely cooked jumbo shrimp. Kali mirch ke tikke, boneless chicken thighs marinated in cream and black pepper, isn’t included in the mixed grill, but it’s well worth seeking out.
So is balti, an Afghani-style curry redolent of cloves and other spices that you’ll find under the “Non-Veg Entree” heading along with the likes of korma, vindaloo, tikka masala and traditional curry. All are available with your choice of at least three proteins, and a few include a vegetarian alternative.
The separate vegetarian offering doesn’t take a back seat, for that matter, in terms of quantity or quality. Even if you’re a meat eater, you owe it to yourself to order at least one vegetarian dish with your meal. I’m partial to the bindi masala, but with a dozen choices ranging from the familiar dal and palak paneer to rarities such as alu chutney wala (potatoes stuffed with paneer and simmered in a tangy chutney), you won’t lack for options.
For all its exotic charm, the dining room still bears a few reminders of its erstwhile incarnation as Frazier’s, the estimable restaurant that flourished for several years in this space: the cozy bar at the back of the room, for one, that now stands partially hidden behind the hammered copper pots of a lunch buffet; the ornate bistro mirror.
On one wall, near the front of the room, the large chalkboard that once listed food and wine specials is now wiped clean. It’s easy to imagine that, someday soon, a growing list of new Nepalese specialties will begin to cover that board.
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