Three years ago, the small (ten booths, six tables) establishment received the customary rush of reviewers eager to taste and tell. Their opinions, full of happy stars and ratings, were then dutifully framed and displayed on the wall near the buffet table by manager Sunil Gones. Now, three years later, are the reviews of my colleagues (which Gones is trading on) still valid?
Gones, originally from New Delhi, has aimed high, which makes sense for a restaurant of this name. Not that he has a lot of competition in Broward County, where Indian food isn't renowned for finesse and doesn't seem to be in much demand -- West Broward's Royal India and Little India notwithstanding.
For a small space in an obscure location (at the far corner of the shopping plaza on the northeast corner of Taft Street and Douglas Road), Himalaya packs a powerful presence. Credit the simple things. Warm reds and greens that course through the place. Immaculately clean windows that line one side of the restaurant. The warm, polished wood of the booths.
Come to Himalaya at lunch for a sumptuous buffet that includes cuisine from all regions of India among the almost ten main courses, salads, appetizers, and desserts ($7.95; $9.95 on weekends). On Sundays, patrons come for masala dosa, a thin, crepe-like rice and lentil pancake from southern India.
At dinner, the menu veers from Goa (in the south) to the Punjab in the north of India. Indian's regional cuisines can certainly be linked to natural environment and religious practices, but foreign influence has also played a large part. During the 16th Century, Muslims invaded northern India, bringing with them meat dishes (such as kebobs), spices, nuts, and the idea of ending a meal with a dessert.
The prominently vegetarian Hindu diet of the south features rice, lentils, and vegetables cooked with yogurts, pickles, and chiles. Dals, common purees of chickpeas, mung, or kidney beans, accompany nearly every meal.
The north favors wheat; the south, rice.
Himalaya attempts to cover all the bases. Spicy (to your requested degree) vindaloos and curries, vegetarian platters, and slowly cooked meats prepared in a tandoor oven are specialties of the house. (Tandoors, by the way, are not unique to India but are used throughout the Middle East and central Asia as the preferred way of making bread. The ovens look like big barrels, and the bread is cooked while stuck to the sides.)
A meal here begins, like it or not, with a snack of crisp, ultrathin wafers called papadum, served with two sauces, one tamarind, the other mint. The assorted mixed vegetable platter ($6.95) provides a smooth introduction to a few classic Indian dishes and easily satisfies a party of four. It's a good dish for newcomers to Indian food and for kids. It includes the vegetable samosa, a pastry stuffed with whatever's best from the kitchen that day (onions and potatoes on our visit) folded into a triangle and deep-fried. Then there's an onion bhaji, a little ball of lentils, chiles, onions, and spices, and two kinds of fritters called pakoras: a potato and spinach variety and a paneer, made with homemade cheese somewhat like cottage cheese.
Almost all of this is deep-fried and, in Himalaya's case, rather heavy on the grease, so go easy, because intimidating quantities of food are on the way.
The menu, with its more than 125 items, may be a little too extensive for its own good and can confuse even those experienced in choosing Indian specialties. Gones' effort to be faithful to his northern Indian cuisine while making sure to offer all the southern Indian favorites -- the vindaloos, curries, and chutneys so popular with Americans -- has made selecting main courses exceedingly difficult. Ask for help if you need to. Gones will come to your table and assist you in finding items you'll like. (Our main server, a quiet, polite young man, was in training and begged off most questions.)
Indian breads are famous for their variety and sophistication. There are more than a dozen choices on the menu at Himalaya, but the number is misleading. Most selections are either variations of naam (seven choices, $1.95 to $4.95), a slightly leavened tandoori bread, or the well-known paratha (three choices, $2.50), pan-fried, whole-wheat bread. Either will provide you with a tasty way to combat the spiciness of the main dishes (we went with hot, but medium would work well with most diners).
We skipped the vindaloos -- really a paste for any type of meat or fish so rich in spices that you'd need to visit the West Market Indian Grocery Shop (1890 NW Second Ave., Boca Raton) to make the recipe yourself -- and went for a tandoori house specialty, Chicken Himalaya Special ($15.95), a lamb shahi korma ($12.95), and a vegetable biryani ($10.95).
The lamb shahi korma, bite-sized chunks of meat served in a cream gravy of ginger, coriander, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, almonds, and onion, came with a portion of aromatic basmati rice. In this case, the well-balanced gravy could not hide the fact that the lamb was a little tough and not as flavorful as it should have been.
The vegetable biryani was one of five choices of this elaborate dish flavored with saffron, made with layers of raisins, nuts, and vegetables, and (occasionally) garnished with edible flowers. Another success at the table, this dish was shared down to the last portion and enjoyed with a cucumber raita, a yogurt-based condiment with cumin, coriander, and chiles as seasoning.
Desserts are another adventure in Indian cuisine, and the homemade mango Indian ice cream, or kulfi ($2.50), proved surprisingly thick and fruity compared to its American counterpart. The pita badam kheer ($2.95), a creamy, almost milky rice pudding topped with raisins and chopped almonds, cashew nuts, and pistachios, was more watery than anyone at the table expected and less popular as a result.
Indian food is as complex and nonpareil as French cuisine. Natives like to think of it as art for the eyes, perfume for the nose, and relish for the lips. While Himalaya does not always reach this degree of nirvana, it scales the heights often enough to be worth a visit. And it deserves the critical stars and kudos it still displays on its walls.