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July 10, 2006 - by Richard Jay Scholem
When the Dalai Lama is in New York, he eats the food prepared at the Tibetan Kitchen. North America’s first Tibetan restaurant is now 25-years-old, but most Americans have never eaten a morsel of Tibetan fare nor do they have any idea of what it is. For the past five years it has been run by Thupten Thokmey, a pleasant, knowledgeable restaurateur who is Johnny-on-the-Spot when needed.
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I had speculated that Tibetan cuisine was, based on the location of Tibet, an amalgam of Chinese, Mongolian, and Indian cooking. Amazingly, that assumption turned out to be correct. Yet my second assumption — that it was weird and way-out—was far off the mark. The dishes at Tibetan Kitchen sound more foreign than they are. Its food is delicate, fresh, and both exotic and familiar. Its mostly mild, non-threatening creations are instantly recognizable to diners who have eaten at Asian restaurants. But with interesting twists.
Dumplings, steamed rolls, pan-fried noodles, fried rice, curries, egg-drop soup, noodle soup, and vegetarian dishes will not surprise eaters of Chinese and Indian vittles. But look (and taste) more closely. The outstanding Sha Momo, Tibet’s most popular dish for example, could be dismissed as an ordinary steamed or fried dumpling, but in addition to its hand-chopped beef it harbors vibrantly seasoned vegetables. This dish offers eight, not the usual four or five, plumb crescents. An airy Dan Tsel or crisp, shredded cabbage and carrot salad dressed in an aromatic, light sesame and vinegar dressing isn’t as standard as it
first seems either.
Although the Shamik Nezom or tiny shrimp with minced vegetables sautéed with herbs is a straight Chinese taste-alike, Sha Lafook Dikrool and Cha Sha Sham-Deh aren’t. The first, served with a warm, circular steamed roll that’s porous enough to sop up sauce is a Tibetan lamb stew replete with radishes and spinach simmered in vegetable broth. The second is a mild Tibetan Chicken curry, marinated in an herbed yogurt. More familiar, but especially deserving of attention is the Sha-gyathook Ngopa or gently pan fried noodles with veggies and chicken or beef.
Finish up with one of two desserts: Shinto Nga-sey, a Tibetan apple pie rich with raisins and deysee, a rice pudding-like sweet also studded with raisins and mixed with yogurt, butter and sugar.
The diminutive Tibetan Kitchen is a serene spot with a snug spiral staircase that connects this 24-seat storefront dining room with its downstairs dining room. Pictures of Tibet’s palaces and monasteries dot the walls as well as photos of the Dalai Lama at different ages. Tibetan opera music also fills the air and Asian charm pervades the premises.
444 Third Ave. at 31st St., 212-679-6286
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