A Taste of the Himalayas, Near Sea Level

A Review of Tibetan Kitchen in Middletown
New York Times Review
The tiny, crimson-hued dining room of Tibetan Kitchen, with 24 seats grouped at lacquered tables, is humble, but the ambiance is both cheery and authentic. Credit Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

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 entrees at Tibetan Kitchen include Shaptak, spicy slices of beef sautéed with three kinds of pepper. Credit Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

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.

Just about every dish on the menu is a winner — provided you are open to at least a modicum of heat. (“Chili peppers are in every Tibetan house,” Mr. Gyaltsen told me, “and in almost every dish.”)
Dhang tsel, a salad with red and green cabbage, cilantro, carrot and cellophane noodles, is among the appetizers. Credit Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

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.

Two of the meat dishes that I sampled during my visits were also excellent. Sha-momo — dumplings filled with pork, beef or chicken (I tried all three) that can be ordered steamed or pan-fried — were tender and redolent of scallion, garlic and cilantro. And Shaptak — spicy slices of beef sautéed with three kinds of pepper: red and green bell, and long hot chili — were perfect for scooping up with pan-fried rounds of Bhaklep (slightly crisp Tibetan flat bread akin to Indian chapati) or pieces of Tingmo (spongy steamed bread rolls, which can be pulled apart like cinnamon buns for sauce-sopping).
The only slight disappointment was the single dessert option I tried: Kheer, described on the menu as “Tibetan-style rice pudding with cardamom, cashew and almonds.” The flavors were as advertised; the texture, however, was less like that of a pudding and more like that of a soup; it strongly reminded me of the Mexican rice drink horchata. Next time, I’ll know what to do differently: Order it in a cup rather than a bowl, and ask for a straw.

Tibetan Kitchen
574 Main Street, Middletown

Very Good

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.