IF YOU sit at the table in the window at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine, a new cafe on Venice Boulevard in Palms, you can study a large panoramic photo under the tabletop glass. It's a scene of the mountain region from which the cafe takes its name, but rather than the more common sight of peaks with no sign of human habitation other than prayer flags, it pictures the city of Pokhara, Nepal.
That's the one nearest to the hometown of co-owner Tara Gurund Black, a warm, charismatic woman, chic in orange cords and high-tech hiking sandals, who wants to know if you've been to Nepal, Tibet or the Himalayan region of India. If there's a dish you had there and want to try again, tell her. If it's not on the menu, she says, chef Tak Gurund will still be happy to make it.
Whether you've ever seen Ms. Black's mountains except in this photo, you'll be reminded of how food -- the scents and flavors of a place -- can transport expatriates, students, overseas workers and nostalgic travelers to a land that's very, very far away indeed.
And at Tara's, the price of an eating-induced mental journey will allow you to keep saving for the next real-life trek.
Have a party here, sharing dishes such as green beans cooked with Himalayan spices, chicken tikka and lamb curry, and dinner will run you about $10 to $12 per person. Eat alone and enjoy a combination plate with an entree, greens, rice, dal and nan for about the same price. The vegetarian lunch special -- a Nepalese combination plate -- is $4.99.
And the food is terrific, fresh, prepared with a light touch and intriguingly seasoned. There are vegetarian, lamb, chicken and seafood options, along with Nepalese specialties and a long list of house-made breads. Spicing is mild, not aggressive, although the raita has a good kick. Sauces are often on the discreetly sweet side.
Begin with the pakoras, tasty hush puppy-like balls of battered, shredded vegetables, onions or chicken. They're outstanding, hot and satisfying, each bite a comforting combination of biscuity croquette and tender-crisp filling. Order a mango lassi and call it a meal.
But don't stop there -- it could be the start of a Himalayan tapas spread. Add samosas -- enormous pastry pyramids stuffed with a delicately flavored, mixed-vegetable filling and served with mint and tamarind chutneys.
Mushroom or chicken momo, or dumplings, come steamed or pan-fried, beautiful walnut-sized purses, tender to the bite, savory and lightly sauced with fresh tomato achaar, a sweetish coulis.
The menu consists mostly of twists on dishes familiar from Indian cuisine such as tandoori chicken, lamb and salmon, or vegetable curries and sautés.
The house spice mixes are richly nuanced but light on chiles. If you're looking for burn, try the chicken chow-chow, a Chinese-style noodle and chicken dish lightly stir-fried, with lots of cabbage, carrots, fresh cilantro, ginger, garlic -- and bite.
Aloo bodi tama, a Nepalese dish of bamboo shoots, potatoes and black-eyed peas, is comfort food that finds a home wherever it goes, hearty and flavorful, with a trio of complementary ingredients.
A delicious dish with quiet layers of flavor is pokhareli chicken, the poultry poached, then sautéed with ground coriander and mango powder, then sprinkled with chopped cilantro (so the fruit and the leaf of the coriander impart their herbaceous fragrance).
At lunch, the thali, or combination plates, served on partitioned metal dishes, are a bright, inexpensive pleasure.
Chicken or lamb curry or a vegetable dish are part of a meal that includes rice, black-lentil dal, vegetables, chutney and hot nan. Or get a plate of momo or one of three Indian combo plates.
House-made desserts traditional to the region include carrot pudding, acquired-taste gulabjamun (sweet milk dumplings) and kheer, a delicious, loose rice-coconut pudding that's beautifully creamy with a wonderfully pronounced infusion of cardamom.
Like the rest of the meal, it treads lightly on the palate -- not a showy finale, but rather an invitation to come again.
Tara's Himalayan Cuisine Location: 10855 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 836-9696.Price: Lunch specials, $5 to $7.50; starters, $3 to $6; vegetarian dishes, $6 to $7; lamb, chicken, seafood and tandoori dishes, $7 to $12.Best dishes:Pakora, momo, Nepalese combination plate, pokhareli chicken, okra curry, spinach nan, lunch specials.Details: Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Lot parking behind the restaurant after 5 p.m. Street parking. No alcohol. Major credit cards.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun