The first surprise of Yak & Yeti, Anchorage's new Central Asian restaurant, is the sensual appeal of the very spare dining room.
The deep-red exterior gives way to more color inside: One wall is an explosion of sunrise, butted against an expanse of red-purple plum. It's hard to focus on a vista even this simple, because your eyes are more eager to follow your nose, which is completely seduced by the savory aromas -- invisible, intoxicating -- that the curtained kitchen entry cannot hold back.
Yak & Yeti is a famous phrase: It's the name of a former palace in Nepalese capital of Katmandu -- and is now the city's finest hotel. Hotels and restaurants eager to evoke the Himalayan mystique have borrowed the name, from a spiffy joint in Britain to the latest eatery at Walt Disney World.
The Anchorage incarnation is at once more modest and more endearing. Lobsang Dorjee and his wife, Suzanne Hull, have been working toward their recent opening for more than a year. Several relatives -- from Nepal, Tibet and India, neatly covering the Himalayan bases -- have joined the enterprise, sometimes with toddlers in tow or infants in a sling as they seat patrons and take orders. It's a cozy, quiet atmosphere that makes even unfamiliar food friendly.
Unless your own ethnicity is Himalayan, a quest for surprise may be the very reason you step through the bright cerise door frame. The menu is quite short, for now, and carefully chosen. Lamb curry ($12.99) is offered as a stand-alone entree or in a combo with daal bhatt, a lightly spiced bowl of pureed lentils made "heavenly," the menu says, with little exaggeration, by adding the clarified butter called ghee.
The curry itself is more savory than spicy -- there's a bit of heat and even a touch of sweetness delivered in the herbal mixture. Dorjee says sheep and goat meats are the tastiest in such a curry, and he hopes to have a goat version on the menu soon.
Pokhra mau pharsi is a Nepalese curry ($11.99) that celebrates another complex melange of spices. Beef and winter squash are simmered in an almost pastelike brew, served over white rice with a side of refreshing raita.
Both are nicely complemented with naan ($2), the traditional puffy bread baked in tandoori ovens and arriving fresh and steaming hot at the table.
The menu is evolving and likely to expand as the restaurant gains its footing. A vegetarian soup ($3.50 per bowl), which seemed doomed to be succotash and tofu in hot water, acquired some moxie last week when the chef added leeks to the recipe. And while most of the curry dishes are rich and intriguing, the Tibetan chicken curry ($10.99) is basically homemade chicken soup. A delicious one, to be sure, but a bit of a tease for diners who anticipate curry framed around Cornish game hen.
The menu commentary says Tibetans have lived in India for half a century -- that note of exile is the only hint of politics here -- and they "have either integrated Indian spices into their cuisine or tempered Indian cuisine." The chicken curry "is an example of the latter," information that made me want to appreciate it more.
Kalimpong shapta, on the other hand, is a Tibetan triumph. Described as the country's answer to buffalo wings, this sassy pork stir-fry ($6.99 as an appetizer, $11.99 as an entree) comes with a cooling side of salad and a beautiful steamed bun in a doughy coil like a cinnamon roll (but it's plain bread dough). Like many dishes, it's presented on a metal platter with finely crafted handles.
The Himalayan region is renowned for vegetarian dishes, and Yak & Yeti delivers plenty. Bright spots on the menu: the previously mentioned lentil slurry called daal bhatt ($7.99 as an entree), vegetable jalfrezi ($10.99, a sauteed mixture that's lightly spiced) and a terrific aloo gobhi ($9.99), a semi-dry curry that makes you forget all the rude things some people say about cauliflower.
Less successful was the palak paneer ($10.99), which featured fine fresh cheese in a dense mass of spinach that lacked the creamy appeal of similar dishes from (other parts of) India.
This may be a textural matter of taste. One of the restaurant's two desserts, gajar ki halwa ($4.99), causes a flashback to baby food. But once tasted, it's irresistible. The shredded carrots are cooked in sweetened milk and served warm. Baby, it's good.
More familiar -- and nicely executed -- is kheer, the classic Indian rice pudding garnished with almonds. Served chilled, it's a luscious sweet finish to an appealing dining experience.
?• Play dining reviewer Mike Peters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yak & Yeti
Location: 3301 Spenard Road
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
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By Mike Peters
Alaska Dispatch Publishing