People have been writing off Belfast's Botanic Avenue for many years. The street has suffered all sorts of slings and arrows principally because for the last 100 years it has been at the heart of a transient student society.
Fred J Malcolm the jewellers may have moved to the Lisburn Road and Easons into town but those left trading here are impressive, unique and attractive. Take No Alibis book shop, one of the greatest centres of thriller, modern mystery and science fiction lit not just in the city but the whole of the north. Down the street is the Institute of Contemporary Music – Rock School – still going strong, buttressing the dreams of teenage wannabes and oldie has-beens with quality classes and courses.
There are one or two memorable restaurants here too including Teatro and the All Seasons. But top of the attractions on Botanic right now has to be the Kathmandu Kitchen.
Tucked away at the foot of Botanic on the Shaftesbury Square end of the street, KK is a modest-looking, old-fashioned Asian restaurant which could probably do with a bit of refurbishment. It feels kind of out of place, like a neighbourhood restaurant in the wrong part of town. The Seventies interior is not ironic and the karakul hats worn by the front of house staff strike a jaunty Himalayan note.
Despite the unintended kitsch, however, this is an impressive restaurant whose offer of authentic Nepalese dishes is underlined by an equally helpful floor staff. The Nepalese food served here is like Indian food for grown-ups. There are as many Hindu-compliant vegetarian dishes as there are others from all sorts of meat-eating ethnic Nepalese groups.
In order not to frighten the weekend adventurers who come down from the hills and plains of Glengormley, Dundonald and Dunmurry to Botanic for a meal, a few drinks and a dance at Madisons, KK's menu also features plenty of standard-issue classics like vindaloos, baltis and biryanis. These feature on the menu in what the restaurant terms, with a polite clearing of the throat, its 'common' main courses, to differentiate them from Nepalese specials.
The adviser and I are in uncharted waters and rely heavily on the advice given by the server. A little bit of research beforehand (Wikipedia) tells us that Nepalese food is extraordinarily wide ranging thanks to its position at the junction of the Far East where subcontinental cultures rub shoulders with Tibet in the north. Nonetheless there are culinary common denominators to look for including the vegetarian Krishna parnami bhojan. This meal is a common sight consisting of rice, lentil and green vegetable stew, accompanied by flatbread, fermented pickle, yoghurt and some salad leaves. The meatier magarati bhansa – which might feature lamb, pork or chicken – is very similar.
But to kick things off a dish of choila lamb served cool with salad and beaten rice set the exotic but rustic tone immediately. The little strips of tender lamb had been thoroughly marinated in mustard oil, green chilli, red onion, scallion, ginger, garlic, lime and, the thug in the spice cupboard, fenugreek.
The citrusy tanginess and bite of the mustard and chilli were well balanced and the flavours of the lamb shone through strongly. It's a marvellous dish full of flavours we are not used to. The closest thing to this is Coppi's eye-watering harissa and mint marinated chopped shallots.
The magarati bhansa would have been termed a banquet by any other Asian restaurant. A wide plate covered in hot flat breads, bowls of lentil stew, basmati rice and a chicken curry dominated the table. The adviser's Himalayan chicken stew enriched with garlic, yoghurt and ginger was a light and comfortably spicy meal which hit all the right notes. It tasted fresh and healthy. A side dish of spiced potato and cauliflower was completely unnecessary but proved irresistible thanks to the lightness of touch and depth of flavour.
The Kathmandu Kitchen is worth a detour and for those with a curry head, it's a must just to broaden the experience and see what interesting things happen when the food we know as Indian curry beings to morph into something approaching Tibet and China, by way of the Himalayas.
Onion pakora £3.95
Choila lamb £5.95
Himalayan Chicken £9.95
Magarati chicken £15.95
Boiled rice £1.95
Aloo Cauli £4.95
Bottle wine £15.95
11 Botanic Avenue, Belfast BT17 1JG
Tel: 028 9024 9264