Soaring peaks, majestic glaciers, mountain-top monasteries. Oxford has its fair share of mountain wilderness but I thought I was missing something. So I headed over to Yeti, a Nepalese restaurant on Cowley Road with a strong reputation as an Oxford institution.
After being greeted warmly by the waiter, we sat down and were greeted by the chef. Something of an Oxford legend, she invites customers into her restaurant like a home, taking the time to make sure they are happy and fill them in on her day. We kicked off the food with the standard papadums and selection of dips, with a fantastic tamarind sauce before our starters of Chili Paneer and some Vegetable Momos, both very reasonably priced at £3-£4. If you haven’t had paneer before, you should try it; always mistakenly translated as cottage cheese, it is closer to halloumi in consistency and makes a great meat alternative. In my dish it was deliciously basted in a rich and multi-faceted curry with several levels of flavour. First was a fruity sweetness from the onions, followed by a heatwave that did not overwhelm the taste or excessively burn in my mouth, but did cause some eyewatering, despite the waiter’s warning. Momo is the Nepalese word for dumpling and they are largely similar to dimsum, filled with a wide range of fresh veg blended with traditional Nepalese spices. As for the exact recipe, the chef wouldn’t tell us, so you’ll have to go and try them yourselves.
For the mains my vegetarian dining companion was spoilt for choice, as can be expected from Nepalese cuisine. The answer, of course, was the Vegetable Thali, only available Sunday to Thursday presumably due to the amount of preparation involved. Thali (the name of the dish it is served on) is a traditional Nepalese and Indian dish that encompasses all the taste groups: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. Yeti’s thali features a central vegetable curry, well-balanced and spiced with a range of veg, surrounded by rice, dall (or dhal), greens and a bowl of achaar (spiced chutney), all on a handy tray. The achaar was particularly notable, fulfilling the sweet category with some great extra flavours.
Keen for meat, I went for Masu Gedagudi, a curry of tender lamb with a selection of extra beans and bits thrown into the mix. Advised to combine it with pilau rice and some chilli and garlic naan it was fruity and fragrant, full of coriander and ginger, a markedly different style to most Indian curries. My main was slightly below £10 while the thali, almost the most expensive dish on the menu, was around £12. After finishing up with some mango lassi we both agreed that the meal had greatly exceeded a normal curry, offering much more in terms of flavour and gastronomic experience for very good prices.
Every meal should involve a mystery, just for the excitement if nothing more. Our meal at Yeti perplexed us with a certain flavour in both the Chili Paneer and the Khasi Jhol [sic] that we just couldn’t place. Was it pineapple? Cranberry? “Oh no,” the waiter told us, “we don’t use fruit.” The chef emerged from the kitchen again and after an intense discussion showed us a bowl of tiny seeds. These were ajwain (or ajowan), and after tasting the seeds by themselves – even while gustatorily blinded by curry - we decreed them a magic spice. Similar to thyme or oregano with hints of cumin, they are a great addition to curries and definitely something I’m going to try at home.
While the food is excellent and the ambience lovely (I can’t get enough of Nepalese traditional music), Yeti really wins out on the service. It is very rare for restaurant staff to go out of their way to welcome customers so heartily, with attentive and fun service from even the chef. Not many eateries will allow you to try raw ingredients or explain their recipes in so much detail, but this enhances the experience by so much. While other restaurants should be taking tips from Yeti, you should be eating there. That’s it.
Dave Decides: “You know what they say about big feet, they guarantee good curry.”