Like many armchair travelers, I have entertained an occasional daydream about one day traveling to the Himalayas. But since it is almost certain that I will never get there, I was delighted to discover (belatedly) a restaurant that provides a full-blown sensory trip to that exotic part of the world — right in central Connecticut.
That restaurant, Tibetan Kitchen, opened on Main Street in Middletown almost three years ago and has kept something of a low profile since. Surrounded by trendier, flashier-looking places that cater to the Wesleyan University community, Tibetan Kitchen, with its understated yellow sign and entryway hung with faded prayer flags, makes a modest first impression.
The tiny, crimson-hued dining room, with 24 seats grouped at lacquered tables, is similarly humble. But the ambiance is both cheery and authentic: One wall has a color photo mural of a mountaintop temple; another, a saffron-draped portrait of the Dalai Lama. Serene instrumental music (perhaps played on a dramyin, or Tibetan lute) drifts from unseen speakers. And delicious, familiar aromas — of garlic, chili peppers and sizzling meat — waft from the kitchen hidden in back.
The cooking smells, it turns out, serve as an excellent prelude to the restaurant’s menu offerings — dishes made with ingredients recognizable from other cuisines that come together on the plate in ways that are distinct and exquisite.
The husband-and-wife team that owns Tibetan Kitchen, Sherab Gyaltsen (who oversees the dining room) and Tsering Yangzom (who is the chef), drew on ethnic and personal traditions in opening this, their first restaurant. Both are of Tibetan descent but were raised in India, where their relatives have operated restaurants for many years, in New Delhi and Dharamsala. While the menu the couple has created draws on their culinary knowledge of the two cultures, it also reflects the type of cuisine they have learned from their families. Accordingly, everything served at Tibetan Kitchen is made from scratch, like hand-pulled noodles, savory broths or chili sauces. To make dumplings, Ms. Yangzom rolls out the dough every day, fills and pinches the pockets together and then steams them to order.
Many of the tastiest options are vegetarian, including two starters: Himalayan Ne-Zom, a medley of tofu, peas, cauliflower and potato in a zingy tomato-based sauce reminiscent of an Indian tikka masala; and Dhang tsel, a fresh salad of shredded red and green cabbage, cilantro, carrot and cellophane noodles served in a piquant sesame-oil dressing.
A deceptively simple vegetable entree called Shogo sip-si — julienne potato sautéed with dried chili pepper, garlic and red onion — is both fiery and satisfying. Milder, but still hearty, is Tsel-Thenthuk: a deep bowl of gingery broth bobbing with chunks of tofu, red pepper, bright-green spinach leaves and thick, hand-torn noodles.
574 Main Street, Middletown
THE SPACE Small and welcoming, the dining room has eight tables. The décor includes prints and photos of temples and landscapes as well as other Himalayan touches. Wheelchair accessible.
THE CROWD A casually dressed mix of college students and older couples. Sherab Gyaltsen, an owner, moves through the room, greeting regulars and first-time diners with equal warmth.
THE BAR After two years of B.Y.O. service, the restaurant has just begun to offer a short list of beers ($3.50 to $4.50) and wines ($18 to $30 per bottle, or $4.50 per glass).
THE BILL Most starters and soups are $5; side dishes, including Tingmo (steamed bread) and Bhaklep (flat, pan-fried bread), average about $2.50. (Because entrees usually include these, extra portions aren’t always necessary.) Vegetarian entrees are $9 to $10; meat dishes, $9.50 to $12.50. Desserts range from $2.50 to $4.50.
WHAT WE LIKED Starters and sides: Ne-Zom (a spicy-sauced cauliflower-potato-pea medley), Dhang Tsel (a shredded fresh cabbage salad), Churu Siben (sauced and sautéed jalapeño pepper and tomato), Bhaklep , and Tingmo. Entrees: Shogo Sip-Si (spicy julienned potato), Tsel-Thenthuk (hand-pulled noodle soup), Sha-momo (pan-fried pork dumplings), and Shaptak (spicy sliced beef).
IF YOU GO Open Mondays through Saturdays; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 8:30 p.m. No reservations. Ample metered parking is available along Main Street; after 6 p.m. it’s free.