Durbar 84 takes its name from the Nepalese word for "palace" and the number of dishes that constitute a proper feast in that country. That's a romantic name for the area's first Nepalese restaurant, and suitably evocative of a people famous for their hospitality. But I must admit that before last March, when Shyam Aryal and Hari Sharma opened Durbar 84 in Research Triangle Park, I couldn't have named a single one of those 84 dishes.
I suspect I'm not alone. According to Aryal, he and his partner are two of only 500 or so Nepalese immigrants in North Carolina, and Durbar 84 is the state's first restaurant specializing in that country's cuisine. Clearly, the partners face a marketing challenge. They'll have to do more than just serve good food in a welcoming atmosphere. They'll have to educate people too.
The partners have gotten off to a good start with the first two parts of that formula. As a host, the affable Aryal lives up to his homeland's reputation for hospitality. And in the kitchen, Sharma for the most part turns out a palatable rendition of a cuisine that, as it turns out, has much in common with that of northern India.
But the partners could use a little help in the marketing department. In the Triangle, where Indian restaurants are abundant, it's the Nepalese fare that sets Durbar 84 apart. Unfortunately, those who come seeking their first taste of Nepal will have a hard time finding it. Only a tiny fraction of the restaurant's extensive offerings are distinctly Nepalese dishes, and some of those aren't even listed on the menu.
You'll have to ask for aloo tama, a hallmark of Nepalese cuisine that pairs black-eyed peas and bamboo shoots. Same goes for a chutneylike condiment of pickled tomato and dried shrimp, whose intense flavor adds an exotic counterpoint to just about any dish it's paired with.
You will find momo, dumplings filled with a garam masala-spiced blend of ground chicken and turkey, and served with a chutney of tomato, sesame, cilantro and white pepper, under the appetizer heading. And you'll find a tangy, sesame seed-spangled potato salad called aloo ka achaar, a side dish that's so downright addictive, you'll likely find yourself ordering seconds (maybe even thirds, given that the price is only $1.50). But you'll have to know to look for these dishes, because the menu doesn't tell you that they're Nepalese specialties.
To be fair, chances are good that you'll stumble across one or two of these dishes if you get the buffet rather than ordering from the menu. In fact, the $7.95 weekday lunch buffet, when turnover is high, is a good way to sample across the Nepalese-to-northern India spectrum of Durbar 84's offering. I'd urge caution, however, when approaching the Saturday night buffet, based on a recent visit when the dining room was sparsely populated and the steam table offering correspondingly stale.
Whether selecting from the menu or the buffet, keep an eye out for rogan josh, which serves up lean chunks of leg of lamb in a creamy sauce redolent of nutmeg and cinnamon. And for chicken tikka, yogurt-marinated nuggets of chicken breast that are exceptionally moist for chicken cooked in a tandoor oven.
Skip the pedestrian chicken curry if it's on the buffet (it isn't listed on the menu), and opt instead for chicken do pyaazkoo, whose creamy curry sauce is riddled with tomatoes and sweet onion slivers. Or, if a few bones and a little naturally rendered fat in the sauce don't bother you, the more assertively spiced goat curry. Bhanta, the tandoor-baked eggplant dish known in India as baigan bharta, is a winning vegetarian option.
And by all means, save room for a dish of rice pudding, supremely rich and perfumed with cardamom and vanilla.
When all is said and done, Durbar 84 would rate about average as a northern Indian restaurant if judged on the bulk of its offering. Its Nepalese specialties are what make the restaurant a worthy destination for gastronomic adventurers. Just be sure to take a cheat sheet.