Prem Raja Mahat, the owner of the new Nepal House restaurant in Mount Vernon, is a well-known folk singer in his native Nepal. Just how highly regarded is Mahat?
A National Public Radio profile in 2003 told listeners, "In America, Prem Raja Mahat manages an Indian restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland. But in his home country of Nepal, Prem Raja is one of the most popular singers. Think of him as the Bob Dylan of Katmandu ... or Elvis of the Himalayas."
Mahat is no longer a restaurant manager; he is an owner, and not for the first time. Mahat was formerly the owner of the Himalayan House, a mostly carryout restaurant in Locust Point.
Nepal House is no carryout. It's a cheerful and very welcoming restaurant where you and your friends would be happy to spend the better part of a winter evening. This is the space where Indian restaurant Mughal Garden operated for about 20 years. Once decent, Mughal Garden appeared to be on automatic pilot its last few years. It always looked so gloomy when you walked by.
The first thing Mahat did was to brighten up the place. He knocked down the wall separating the main dining room from the front bar, where new booths have been installed. Now, if you wander in alone to treat yourself to the fine lunch buffet at Nepal House, you can sit down here instead of in the main dining room, which was never comfortable for single diners.
The walls have been painted white, new carpet has been installed and new artwork hung. The biggest physical improvement is at the entrance, where the vestibule was decorated for the holiday season with poinsettias. Framed newspaper articles about Mahat's career and fame are hung there, and you feel, coming into Nepal House, like you've arrived at some place special. It also smells wonderful.
Mahat has the charisma of a superstar but none of the sulkiness. The restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived early on a weeknight, but it filled up with a few large parties, which added some cheer to the large banquet-sized, brightly lit dining room, as did the arrival of Mahat himself — he had been out making deliveries. Mahat greeted the diners so warmly, and they him, that I asked him, during a follow-up conversation, how he knew them.
"I don't know them," Mahat told me. "They came because they wanted to see me."
Mahat is charming, and he makes the food at Nepal House seem more special than it is.
We really had no problem with any of our selected dishes, which were mostly familiar things like vegetable korma, fish tikka and appetizer assortments of pakoras, samosas, tandoori shrimp and seekh kabob. We enjoyed the food at Nepal House, where what we ordered was seasoned well, presented handsomely and seemed well cared for.
There were plenty of encouraging moments. A vegetarian appetizer platter gave us plump, crunchy pakoras and crisp, savory samosas. The shrimp in an appetizer platter were good, firm and fresh-tasting, and the pieces of minced meat from the kabob were definitely a little juicier than the typical Indian fare we've had. On a vegetarian appetizer platter, the pakoras were pleasantly plump and crispy.
Among the entrees, the fish tikka, made with barbecued salmon, offered up the enveloping warm flavors that we want from good curry dishes. A vegetable korma was a little creamier and less yogurt-y than we were used to. It also had bigger pieces of intact vegetables than what we typically see.
Our favorite dish was the Thakali thali, one of a handful of menu items grouped under the heading Nepal Specialties. A thali is essentially a Nepalese meal consisting of small snacks, like boiled rice, goat curry, spinach with radish pickle, mixed lentils and sweetened yogurt. These are served, typically, as a grouping of small metal bowls on a large round serving plate.
We enjoyed taking tastes of the various dishes, and we were particularly delighted by a slightly sour rice pudding. I recommend ordering the thali as a shared appetizer.
The rice pudding turned out to be all the sweetness we needed, although there are dessert options — the deep-fried cottage cheese balls known as gulab jamum, the sweetened cottage cheese patties known as rasmalai, and the Indian-style ice cream known as kulfi.
We also did without alcohol or beer at Nepal House, which does have a full liquor license. Instead we enjoyed fortifying cups of Masala chai, a brew of black tea with aromatic spices.
Overall, we were impressed enough to put Nepal House on our Indian-food rotation, and its Mount Vernon location makes it a good choice for a cultural district dinner.
At Nepal House, we felt like Mahat's invited guests. I think you will, too.