Holy mother of awesomeness. (Yes, our meal was that good.)
We were drawn to Woodside Cafe by the intrepid Dave Cook's and Joe DiStefano's descriptions of Nepali-Italian fusion, which just sounds crazy and great in an only-in-Queens kind of way.
But aside from the pizza operation up front (and the straight-from-the-bottle Italian dressing on the iceberg lettuce that accompanied one of our dishes), we found no evidence of Italian cuisine here. This was straight up Nepali -- specifically Newari food from Kathmandu.
As our patient waiter explained, food in Kathmandu (unlike in other regions of Nepal, like Mustang, or in neighboring Tibet) is known for its spiciness. And it's true, the kitchen didn't skimp on the spicing/heat in our dishes, despite the obvious fact that no one at our table was South Asian. (Finally! Amen!)
The flavors were very North Indian, to my palate -- especially the SPLIT-URAD DAAL and very tangy YOGURT that accompanied our VEGGIE THALI, as well as the cauliflower, potato, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, and black chickpeas dishes (from the thali and the SAMAY BAJI appetizer). But the ample use of mustard oil is usually more common in Bengali cooking, and the lightly seasoned, sauteed greens are definitely not South Asian -- more Chinese or Tibetan, I'm guessing. The SOY BEANS and raw ginger are something I've never seen in Indian cooking, and the POTATO ACHAAR (pickle) and DAIKON ACHAAR, which combined Indian spices with sesame oil/seeds, is a flavor I love, which I've only encountered in Nepali food. The CHATMARI (rice flour pancake topped with meats, beans, etc.) and GRILLED BEEF appetizer (a meat you'll have to look hard to find in Indian cooking) were also distinctly Nepali, though their seasonings surely overlap with flavors you'll find in Indian cooking.
Advance apologies for the missing information -- e.g., some of these dishes' names and ingredients. There was no "to go" menu available, and I was so sucked into my meal that I didn't bother to take notes.
I'll track down that information and include it in my formal review (TK on City Spoonful). In the meantime, I'm already plotting my return. I may just snag a nice bottle of wine (their operation is BYOB) and drag my lovely husband here to celebrate our wedding anniversary this weekend. Yes, it really was that good.
Onto the dishes:
SOY BEANS appetizer (w/mustard oil and fresh slices of ginger): Though I can't remember the actual name of this dish, it was my favorite of the night -- stunning flavors of mustard oil (think wasabi but smoky) with a slightly nutty, burnt edge and fragrant raw ginger. Wow. What a flavor-maxed snack -- totally addictive!
ALOO PALOO(?) appetizer (boiled potatoes cooked in a spicy sauce): This was definitely tasty but still kind of "eh" -- soft/tender potato pieces, devoid of gratuitous oil, legitimately spicy. But the flavors were a bit one-dimensional. Still, the sad reality is that this was better than about 80% of the North Indian potato dishes you'll find in our fair city.
ALOO ACHAAR appetizer (boiled potato w/a whole lot going on here!): I'm ashamed to admit that all my time spent cooking Indian food did not prepare me to identify the flavors in this dish. Sesame oil/seeds were prominent, but other than that, I'm not even sure what those little black seeds were (kalonji, black sesame seeds, mustard seeds??). I'll be back for further investigations.
GRILLED BEEF appetizer (I will dig up the name! But for now, that's all I got): This was served cold (intentionally) and was (according to our meat eaters) very spicy and flavorful. Our waiter, who recommended the dish when we asked for something spicy, told me that this would normally be made with buffalo meat in Nepal, rather than beef (which is not terribly popular in South Asia). But in N. America, beef is a better substitute for Nepali buffalo meat than bison meat.
SAMAY BAJI appetizer (meaning, literally, "beaten rice snack"): The beaten rice (similar to Indian poha) is the glue that holds this snack together. Our patient waiter advised us to take a bit of baji (flattened, then roasted rice -- actually MADE IN-HOUSE here!!) with a bit of each of the 6 savory accompanying dishes. The pleasure here comes from the contrasts in flavor and texture -- some of the dishes were mild (the SAUTEED GREENS), others salty (those aforementioned, rockin' SOY BEANS, in a 2nd appearance), some spicy (OK, almost all were spicy...). Similarly, some were soft (the CURRIED POTATO), some firm and meaty (the KAALAY CHOLAY -- black chickpeas -- and BLACK-EYED PEAS), others crunchy (an awesome DAIKON PICKLE that combined sesame oil and Indian spices...yes really!) or even downright hard (SOY BEANS). Pair these with the flakey, dry baji, and you get a completely satisfying food-sensory experience.
The other important element of samay baji is a palm-size disc of fried-lentil awesomeness, called WOH. I'm not normally a fan of fried food, but this was really good. The outside was perfectly crispy, and the center was soft and flavorful. (Note you can this on its own on the menu, with an egg cooked on top of it -- it's a common Kathmandu street food, according to our waiter.) The woh itself is made from split black lentils (aka, urad daal) and split yellow lentils (masoor daal and moong daal). It's a winning combination, if you ask me.
PAN-FRIED and STEAMED VEGGIE MOMOS: OK, these might be my new favorite momos. (It's a tough call, though -- because the veggie momos at Tawa Nepali Hut, my prevailing fav', are so different that it's almost not fair to compare them with these ones.) I didn't try the steamed ones, but the pan-fried momos were juicy and soft, with a mega-flavorful filling. And the dough was just thick/ample enough, without leaving you feeling heavy. My only complaint: It was hard to identify which veggies were in the filling. Then again, why look a gift horse in the mouth? The momos came with a fiery red-chili-based sauce and a yellow-colored "chutney" that was tangy and complex -- definitely some tomato action going on there. Maybe some sesame oil, too?
CHICKEN CHATAMARI: These rice-flour pancakes were topped with chicken and black-eyed peas, with an egg cooked into the center). I didn't get to try the meat version, but our meat eaters seemed happy with it. The coolest part? It came with a small bowl of GOAT GRAVY.
VEGGIE CHATAMARI: This was the same rice-flour pancake topped with black-eyed peas, mashed-up potato, raw tomatoes & onions, with an egg cooked into the center. The pancake itself was thick -- like a South Indian uttapam -- and soft (almost dissolved in the center), but nice and crispy at the outer edges. I'll admit that I wasn't blown away by the flavors here. But I can imagine this being the perfect hangover/drinking food. It's heavy and dense -- both carby (potato on top of a rice-flour pancake) and protein-rich (black-eyed peas and a baked egg), with a mildly sweet, tomato-based(?) sauce.
VEGGIE THALI: The thali included CAULIFLOWER pieces cooked with what tasted essentially like Indian spices, KIDNEY BEANS in a spicy, Indian-inflected tomato sauce, more of those SAUTEED GREENS, and more of that awesome DAIKON PICKLE -- with a huge mound of BASMATI RICE in the center. On the side, there was also SPLIT-URAD DAAL, YOGURT, and more of that tangy TOMATO-ISH "CHUTNEY" that came with our momos. With the exception of the SPLIT-URAD DAAL, the dishes were good but not amazing -- though all were light and simple...like what you might find in an Indian/Nepali home.
About that DAAL: I can't stop raving about this! This could've come from my mother-in-law's (North Indian) kitchen. And it is what Daal Mukhani (or Maa ki Daal, if you're Punjabi) SHOULD be but never is in NYC restaurants. The broth was THIN and flavored SUBTLY with onion, tomato, ginger, garlic, cumin, turmeric, etc. (No heavy cream or other rich flavor shortcuts here!)
Even the PLAIN YOGURT deserves props. This was thin, watery, and way tangy -- pretty much what you find in Indian homes. (Not surprisingly, they make a pretty fine LASSI here, too.)
As with the samay baji, the key to a good thali is assembling a good balance of flavors and textures. In this case, the kitchen definitely succeeded. Each dish in our thali had a very distinct flavor and texture, and when I abandoned my inhibitions and used my hands to mix a bit of rice with the daal or yogurt and then mashed in a bit of one or another vegetable, I got something really satisfying and well-balanced. In this case, the sum was greater than its parts. And I'm OK with that.
And the bill for all this food? $13/person (including tax/tip).
(Photos of our meal here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?se...)
64-23 Broadway, Queens, NY 11377