Our plane landed safely, and so did all the other jets surrounding us, but as my foot hit the tarmac at Lal Bahadur Sharstri International Airport, the gateway to Varanasi, India, I was hit by the smell of burnt rubber. The haze of the city was extraordinary, as was it’s sheer density of population, as our cab weaved through droves of pedestrians, mountains of trash, and the occasional cow — who shut down the street when it needed to cross. We were heading towards the Ganges River to a dogshit $8 per night hostel and Ry was sneezing like a goddamned banshee and fading fast.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and among the Hindu religion’s holiest. In fact, Varanasi and this stretch of the Ganges River is a once in a lifetime pilgrimage for all Hindus and an optimal place to die in old age for the devout. Beyond the beautifully colored buildings set on the Ganges and the tiny winding streets of the old city, tourists flock to Varanasi as not only a gateway to Northern India — Delhi, Aggra, and Jaipur are all within reasonable distance — but also for it’s cultural elements — namely Varanasi’s role in the Hindu religion, but also that small detail that it’s hands-down the cremation capital of the world.
Our decrepit hostel was by the water (good), but situated by a massive crematory (very bad). As Ryan headed to bed at 6pm to recover, leaving me alone in the strangest of places, I decided to sit out on our tiny, rickety balcony and watch procession after procession of deceased Indians being brought to the river to burn. Soon large wafts of smoke came pillowing in my direction and looking to my left I realized that the smoke wasn’t coming from the shore or from the in-view crematory, but from another crematory, directly to the left of my room that I was unaware of. And what was burning — well it certainly wasn’t wood! My respite for that night, after fleeing that morbid terrace— the spicy and sweet flavor profiles of incredible Indian food.
Ever since that trip, I’ve been a sucker for proper Indian food. Yet Indian food in the states can be tricky. Chicken Tikka Masala is basically the national dish of England and great Indian food can be found either in urban centers in America or pockets of the US where Indian immigrants have settled, but not so much on the Connecticut Shoreline. Until, of course, Himalaya Café came out of nowhere to become one of the top Indian joints in the state and instantly one of the better restaurants in our area.
The first thing one remarks about the Himalaya Café is it’s interior design. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the chicest decors on the Shoreline — bar or restaurant. Now I know fuck-all about the intricacies of interior design, but I’ll tell you this — I feel hip when I walk in, a rare occurrence to say the least. The entire restaurant is loungy. Couches and cushion adorn the majority of the seating area, with four four-top tables set against the left wall. There is one large wooden table that splits these sections and can host a large party or be split-up for multiple groups. A bright blue light illuminates the underside of their L-shaped dark mahogany bar, which emits a distinguished, yet hip feel to the whole place. The chef creates his dishes behind this bar, within plain site of the whole restaurant, which I am always a fan of too. Distinctive lights hang from the ceiling, with vases and funky wooden poles set against the back wall. Lastly, there is the projector that splashes huge video against the wall immediately to your left when you walk-in. The volume is muted of course and usually shows some sort of cooking show, often of the Indian variety. What could be a kitschy feature is the opposite — it’s unique and a definite value-add.
The food itself is first-rate too. Himalaya Café doesn’t draw crowds because it’s the only Indian joint in town, it puts butts in seats because the food is both authentic and consistent. Beginning with the fundamentals, their naan is light, airy, and chewy. Each portion is two huge pieces, but the protip here is to get one extra order per two people. It gives you a third piece to mop up curry later in the meal and the quality of the naan is such that it will never go to waste. Highlights in the appetizers have to be their paneer tikka. It’s simple cottage cheese in a tandoor oven, but the spices and vegetables that accompany it make it a clean and tasty starter. Their samosas are fantastic too and a nice vegan option. Himaylaya has a plethora of vegetarian and vegan options in general — my favorite being the paneer saag. If you don’t eat meat, Himalaya Café needs to become a staple of your restaurant rotation immediately.
The draw of the restaurant though has to be their curry. They offer three options of heat — mild, medium, and hot — while also reserving Indian Hot for those that are so bold. I can’t say that I’m mowing Carolina Reapers on the reg, but I do enjoy spicy food. Their Indian Hot was a bridge too far for my solidly New England taste buds, but the hot worked well and still left me sweating. If you aren’t into the spice, stick to the mild, as even the medium has some kick to it. Chicken Tikka Masala is probably the plate to judge most Indian restaurants and Himaylaya crushes this iconic dish. The tang and acidity from the tomato meld well with the cream and the spices — it’s a great entry into Himaylaya’s food or a go-to dish if you are unfamiliar with Indian cuisine. Lastly, while I love the heat and spice of the Lamb Vindaloo, their Chicken or Lamb Korma is probably their best dish. Coriander and cumin play well together and create a bright and satisfying main course. If you are visiting for the first time — order either Chicken or Lamb Korma, with the paneer tikka as a starter, along with the Chicken Tikka Masala to share. You won’t be disappointed.
My honeymoon was split between Northern Italy and the South of France, but before we traveled to those glorious spots we had a few days in England. My wife, an Indian food fiend, took us to a renowned Indian restaurant in London — a city renowned for fine Indian cuisine. We had a great meal, and she loved that Indian restaurant in London, as does she adore others in New York and Providence, but nothing, and I repeat nothing, compares to the Korma at Himalaya Café, she says. If that’s not a testament to the magnificent fare being served at the Himalaya Café, then I don’t know what is.