Sel roti with marinated vegetables. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
Your meal at Royal Nepal starts with a bread basket. Actually, it’s a round proofing basket outfitted with a snug Dhaka cloth, the brightly colored, hand-woven fabric that may be more visible across Nepal than the Himalayas. Buried inside the basket is another tradition of the South Asia country: sel roti.
How to describe sel roti? It’s sort of a cross between a funnel cake and a doughnut with a monstrously large hole, except made with a rice batter sweetened with sugar and honey. Typically served at religious festivals, such as Dashain, sel roti is a daily offering at Royal Nepal in Alexandria. By itself, the fried bread is rugged, chewy, sweet and lukewarm, more curiosity than obsession.
[Namaste scales the highest peaks in search of authentic Nepali cooking]
At least that’s how I felt about sel roti before I broke off a slender tube and smashed it against a length or two of fermented carrot and daikon. Suddenly, a universe, once chaotic and without order, revealed its perfection. These lowly root vegetables, lit up with mustard seeds and chili powder and turmeric and God knows what else, found a purpose for this dense, plodding bread: as a honeyed platform for the fragrance and spice of the Nepali kitchen.
Owners Subash Rai, Dip Raj Magar and Tuk Gurung. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
If the combination of bread and spicy pickle strikes a familiar chord, it should. It is Nepal’s deep-fried take on a pairing common in South India: flatbread and achar, the versatile and combustible pickle that can take many forms, from mango to green chile. The combo strikes me as the ideal opener at Royal Nepal. It is both an introduction to the mountainous country and a gift from the restaurant’s Nepali owners, an edible namaste for the table.
Opened in March in the space once occupied by Shakthi South Asian Cuisine, the farm-to-table Royal Nepal is more refined than many of its strip-center ilk, a reflection of the founders’ previous experiences in D.C. restaurants. Owner/sommelier Dip Raj Magar worked as a server at Blue Duck Tavern, absorbing and memorizing all facets of the West End operation. Owner/chef Subash Rai cooked at the restaurant inside the Fairmont Hotel, a West End destination for the luxury-minded. Owner/general manager Tuk Gurung also logged time as a server at the Blue Duck. Did I mention that he has a master’s degree in management, too?
For the trio’s debut restaurant. Magar has assembled compact wine and cocktail lists, decidedly more thoughtful than many found in my travels along the suburban byways. The $20 Diner is not accustomed to sipping on drinks as elegant as the Royal Nepal Rock, a Boulevardier riff in which bourbon is stretched both left and right by the bitter, barrel-aged Campari and the sweet vermouth. This libation beats the hell out of a Taj Mahal lager.
Lamb chops served on a slab of Himalayan salt. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
Lamb chops are a dime a dozen — I’m speaking figuratively here, given the high price of quality chops — but the bones prepared in Rai’s kitchen do something rare in restaurants these days: They overdeliver on the promises whispered on the menu. Stacked like a tepee on a glistening slab of pink salt, the yogurt-marinated lamb chops would probably melt in your mouth if not for the exquisite char around their edges. I bulldozed through two bones, savoring their salt and spice, before realizing I hadn’t even dabbed one in the mint chutney yet.
No other dish on Rai’s menu approaches the slack-jawed ecstasy of those chops. But some try. The buffalo momo, a Nepali take on meat dumplings, hint at the ginger, garlic and other North Indian aromatics that inform the country’s cuisine. Alas, the ground, grass-fed buffalo meat inside these bundles gets almost mummified by the thick wrappers. The wild boar curry, a brooding bowl of bone-in meat, lulls you with its weak handshake before balling its fist into a sucker punch of spice.
Even dishes more associated with India than Nepal find their personalities recast to fit Rai’s sensibilities. Butter chicken, that international ambassador of North Indian cooking, coasts on a thin tomato gravy at Royal Nepal, its willowy body built by cashew nuts and butter, not yogurt. Once your palate adjusts to the characteristics of this Himalayan interpretation, the butter chicken has a seduction all its own. The tender goat biryani needs no grace period: It’s a fragrant and fiery dish that finds its full voice with a dollop of tangy raita.
Buffalo momo. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
Some of Rai’s best work can be found on the appetizer menu, including, much to my surprise, the goat momo, a line of house-made dumplings that boast wrappers far more supple than those swaddling the ground buffalo meat. But be prepared: These momo conceal fireworks under their thin skins. The spiced lamb sekuwa harbors its own beguiling character: the Nepali Timur pepper, similar to the Sichuan pepper but with an anesthetic quality that’s more citrusy than its Chinese cousin. Rai even serves palak chaat, the fried spinach appetizer so closely aligned with Rasika in Penn Quarter. His take is tight, but it won’t inspire you to switch allegiances.
Royal Nepal is a sedate space, sort of spare and sort of farmhouse-chic. Or whatever the Nepali version of farmhouse-chic is. Pagoda-chic? The restaurant’s homeyness is reinforced by the root vegetables fermenting in jars around the cozy dining room. (Yes, they’re the same pickles that will be served with your sel roti.) There’s also an air of sweet confidence-slash-insecurity about the owners, who frequently roam their restaurant, soliciting feedback on everything from the wine (the pinot really does pair well with spicy momo) to the Nepali sikarni dessert (a delicious swirl of whipped yogurt infused with cardamom).
The owners’ insecurity, of course, is understandable given their gamble on a little-known cuisine, but I’d like to make one point clear: Nepali cooking couldn’t have better emissaries in Washington than these three men.