Simply Sunshine, Simply Divine

By Daniel B Haber, ECS Magazine, Sep 11, 2002

As you walk up the creaking stairs in one of Thamel’s few remaining traditional Newar houses with its signature black shutters, the dazzling day-glo kandy-kolored tangerine flake walls hit you like a sunburst and you know you have reached the spanking new Mitra Café. “Mitra is a name of the sun-god; it also means ‘friendship’, so I think it is a moreappropriate name for my newly reincarnated café than the old one, Simply Shutters,” explains Swiss-trained Kunal Lama, one of Kathmandu’s best known and most genial restaurateurs.

A café dedicated to friendship, is indeed an appropriate moniker, as Kunal greets most of his guests personally on a first name basis, and many are already known to each other. So it feels a bit clubby (without being cliquish), as guests trade hugs and kisses or at least handshakes with one another. Even on a weekday evening, the 30-40 orange-hued/plaid seats fill up quickly, so reservations are advised for dinner. In the inner dining room (available for private parties), eight Americans looked at home in a long dinner table reminiscent of a downtown Manhattan salon. A Thai chef on his day off from a Nagarkot restaurant sits at the window table overlooking the passing Thamel scene, and in the opposite corner an Indian hotelier from one of Kathmandu’s upcoming five-star properties nurses his drink before ordering. A Tibetan/Nepali film maker nibbles on chicken liver pate and crusty French bread as he is joined by a suitably fashionable companion. Café Mitra seems to be the ‘in’ place at the moment where Kathmandu’s cognoscenti and f&b (food and beverage) professionals go for fine dining and let their hair down. The only thing conspicuous by its absence is the impecunious backpacker.

For Kunal, it is a homecoming of sorts, like greeting family and old friends at holiday time, as for the last seven years he has lived in the quaint building—still a bit wobbly having survived the 1930s era earthquakes that devastated most of the valley. “Four years ago I moved my restaurant to Babar Mahal because the landlord told me he had planned to demolish the building, but after he changed his mind and offered me a long-term lease I decided to move back. And with the economy down, the lower rent and walk-in location of Thamel became more attractive, so I’m happy to be back home in Thamel.” Wearing different hats, maître d’, waiter, bartender, mother hen and even diner at his own restaurant, Kunal scurries about between the kitchen, the bar, the dining room, tasting, instructing, answering the phone all at the same time, it seems.

Unlike the previous chalk-board menus, the new menus are printed and bound but will be changed fortnightly, and sometimes minor changes are there when some items, such as brie, or other imported cheeses, may not be available. Although there is good selection of prime imported meat (including rilletes of duck from Australia), all purveyed meticulously by Nina & Hager (whom Kunal calls Nina Hagen after the German punk singer) vegetarians are not neglected. I order the aubergine, tomato and cheese galette and on another occasion, a tomato soup with celery and apples — “tomatoes used to be called ‘love apples’, you know,” I’m told after expressing surprise at the apple ingredient in the soup. Being a vegetarian and vegetable lover, I order a side order of vegetables to accompany my pasta (penne in cream sauce with sweet green peppers and black olives). There’s even a menu of 'mocktails' for non-drinkers. So, while my companion quaffs a Red Russian (vodka with cherry brandy), I down a Fake Russian (coke with espresso syrup).

“What’s this little green heart-shaped veggie?” I ask my host. “That’s iskus, perhaps Nepal’s most under-rated and ignored vegetable”, Kunal says. Pared, steamed and buttered. I find the crunchy texture, like lettuce hearts, irresistible. Kunal tells me that often people mistake it for other vegetables, and that in his native Darjeeling they also use the stem and root for cooking as well. He says, that he “got tired of the usual boring suspects, stringbeans and carrots.” Another unusual vegetable on the menu is purple cabbage slightly sweetened, German style and served at room temperature.

And speaking of Darjeeling, Kunal plans to introduce Darjeeling khana or Darjeeling dal/bhat which he says is a bit different and more sophisticated than that of the Kathmandu Valley. Will there be any fusion dishes, I innocently ask, not knowing that fusion cuisine is a pet peeve of Kunal’s. “Definitely not,” he replies without missing a beat. If anything, it will be what he calls “Cosmo” cuisine, that is cosmopolitan, dishes from various regional cuisines around the world, but not mixed up: for example, maybe one dish from Morocco (cous-cous, I presume) or one from Indonesia (perhaps gado-gado), etc. And already the first menu reflects that, with dishes ranging from mozzarella and tomato salad to Japanese Zen mackerel. And the menu descriptions have a bit of attitude, as if Kunal were dishing someone like a gossip columnist: “accompanied by a spicy date” or “two pork chops with fat in the right places—and saucy to boot!” Or a dessert that’s “tantalizingly tarty.”

After pigging out on the penne, my companion and I have barely enough room for one of the large selection of homemade desserts (including ice-creams and exotic sorbets), so we decide to share a banana cheese cake called Banoffee. But when it arrives, it looks (and tastes) too good to share, so we order another. For me, it was the best pastry I’ve had since the Oriental’s 125th anniversary bash in Bangkok, and for my antipodean companion, she says it was the most “wickedly divine” dessert she’s had in her five years living in Nepal.

Flitting from table to table, Kunal rejoins us for moment as we wash down dessert with a demitasse of espresso. He tells us that he may open a boutique of furnishings and household accessories upstairs, similar to the one he had in Babar Mahal, then excuses himself when his cell phone warbles a call from his jeweler associate who is sending an order of men’s silver accessories designed by Kunal (yet another hat) to the UK.

As we descend into the darkness of after-hours Thamel, we pause to admire the lithographs of the husband/wife duo Dr. Seema Sharma and Uma Shankar Shah, displayed by the Siddhartha Art Gallery with shows of various artists represented by Siddhartha to be changed monthly. Outside on the newly rain-washed street, a rickshaw stops and we pause to look up at the warm glow emanating from Café Mitra, the former Simply Shutters, now simply sunshine, simply divine.

Café Mitra, Thamel. Tel. +977 1 425 90 15.
Opening hours 11am-10pm daily.
Main Courses from Rs. 250-390.
Parking behind Himalatte, or on the street after 8pm.