We were drawn to Woodside Cafe by other bloggers’ descriptions of the restaurant’s Nepali-Italian fusion—a concept that sounds crazy and wonderful in an only-in-Queens kind of way.
But aside from the tiny pizza operation up front, we found no evidence of Italian cuisine. This was straight-up Nepali food—specifically Newari food from Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu.
Food in Kathmandu—unlike other regions of Nepal or neighboring Tibet—is known for its spiciness. And the kitchen didn’t skimp on the heat, despite the fact that no one at our table was South Asian.
The flavors in our dishes reflected the many cultures that converge at Nepal’s borders. Ingredients and seasonings from North Indian, Bengali, Chinese and Tibetan cooking were all evident.
There were also dishes that seemed distinctly Nepali: achar, pickled daikon and potatoes seasoned with Indian spices, sesame oil and sesame seeds—ingredients more commonly found in Chinese and Korean cooking; and chatamari, a rice-flour pancake topped with vegetables, lentils and a fried egg.
The haku choila appetizer, served at room temperature, is normally made with yak meat, but North American buffalo yield tough meat. Our dish was made with grilled beef seasoned with garlic, ginger, mustard oil and ample red chilies.
(Full disclosure: Your humble reviewer, a vegetarian, owes the meaty portions of this review to the careful descriptions of her carnivorous dining companions.)
The samay baji appetizer combined house-roasted and flattened rice flakes (chiura) with a smorgasbord of spicy, savory dishes: black-eyed peas, black chickpeas and potatoes cooked in North Indian spices; sauteed mustard greens; spicy daikon pickled in vinegar and sesame oil (achar); roasted soybeans tossed with spicy, pungent mustard oil and slivers of fresh ginger (musya palu); and woh, a deep-fried patty made from mashed lentils.
Our waiter showed us how to take a bit of the crunchy chiura, mash in dabs of other dishes, and enjoy the contrasting flavors and textures. Each dish had a distinct flavor and, in true Kathmandu style, most were aggressively spicy.
The soybeans and the daikon pickle had especially vivid, complex flavors. The woh, with its perfectly crispy outer crust and soft, dense center, was a rich treat.
The panfried kothe vegetable momos were packed with mashed vegetables seasoned with turmeric and garam masala. Served with a spoon of vegetable broth ladled on top, these momos combined a chewy but delicate house-made dough with juicy, incredibly flavorful fillings.
The vegetable chatamari, a rice-flour pancake topped with black-eyed peas, mashed-up potato, and raw onions and tomatoes with a fried egg cooked into the center, didn’t wow us with its flavors. But this utterly unique dish—both carby and protein-rich—would be an ideal drinking accompaniment or hangover cure.
The pancake itself was heavy and dense, like a South Indian uttapam. It was mushy in the center and satisfyingly crispy at the edges.
Our vegetable thali featured cauliflower lightly sautéed with mild Indian spices, kidney beans in a spicy, tomato-based sauce, and the same mild sautéed mustard greens and daikon pickle from the samay baji appetizer—served with a huge mound of long-grain basmati rice and small bowls of daal soup and very tangy yogurt.
First, a word about that daal. Most South Asian restaurants take shortcuts with daal, adding heavy cream to boost flavor (fail!), but this wholesome urad (black) daal could have come from my North Indian mother-in-law’s kitchen. The broth was thin (as it should be, but rarely is), boiling hot and subtly flavored with onion, tomato, ginger, garlic, cumin seeds, turmeric and ample ghee (clarified butter), which imparted a rich, nutty flavor.
All of the dishes in the thali were simple—more like home cooking than restaurant food. Except for the excellent daal, we weren’t wowed by any of the dishes—though each had its own distinct flavor.
But when we abandoned our inhibitions and used our hands to mix a bit of rice with the daal or yogurt and then mashed in a bit of one or another dish, the balance of flavors and textures was completely satisfying. The sum, in this case, was definitely greater than its parts.