Himalayan Rhapsodies

Lhasa Moon
2420 Lombard. Lunch is served Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Credit cards are accepted and the restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Call 674-9898.

"Tashi delek," D'Arcy formally greeted the ravishing, long-braided woman who ushered us to a table. "Tashi delek!" responded the delighted Tsering Wang Mo, who was not only the restaurant's co-owner, but also the singer you hear on tape when you eat at Lhasa Moon, softly accompanying your Tibetan dinner with arresting Tibetan music.

Our first visit fell on the first evening of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. My old bud Martha suggested it, mentioning that her friend D'Arcy had recently returned from several months' volunteer work in the Tibetan refugee community at Dharmsala, in northern India. I insisted that Martha bring D'Arcy along, at gunpoint if necessary. Sure, I've eaten momos, too, as all good trekkers do in downtown Katmandu. Just across the Himalayas, Tibet furnishes a steady trickle of exiles slipping through the 19,000-foot passes, and Nepal's Sherpas are also of Tibetan stock.

The two groups combine to bring a welcome Tibetan admixture to the local Nepalese fare, including momos, Tibet's version of potstickers. (Subsequently I've even tried to make them at home, stuffing gyoza wrappers with bison as a substitute for minced water buffalo or yak.) Still, these samples instilled mere interest rather than real knowledge of the cuisine, and I was delighted to have someone with a deeper experience join us at Lhasa Moon.

Lhasa Moon is the only Tibetan restaurant in Northern California and possibly in the United States. It's received great reviews in the dailies, but days after the most recent rave (in February) the restaurant changed ownership. Not having eaten there before, I can't say whether the food has changed, too.

As we drove down Lombard its neon sign called to us (the restaurant's at Scott) and we parked in a cheap pay-lot on the corner. In the doorway D'Arcy pointed out the wind chimes (small and green, in this instance) that Tibetan restaurants traditionally hang over their doors. Inside, we found a handsome midsize room with photos of Lhasa on the walls and wooden columns topped with Tibetan carvings. Despite an abundance of fabric (carpeting, tablecloths, leatherette banquettes) we were engulfed in the din of a dozen-odd Americans loudly lauding Losar or something. (Our second visit saw a similar banquet. A later phone call aurally revealed yet another. But if you're gravely noise-intolerant you can always phone in and take out, making this your Deli Lama.)

Tsering's partner, "Jim" (his Tibetan name runs much longer), took our orders, his gentle, cultured voice engaging Martha in an Asian version of "Arkansas Traveler."

She asked, "Will ordering the rice wine make me happy?"
"Yes -- at first," he answered.
"As to the food -- what does the chef like?"
"Well, what dishes does he like to cook?"
"Do you want meat, vegetables ...?"

"He doesn't like vegetables." (Tibet's religion is Buddhism and the devout eat no meat; the menu includes eight vegetarian entrees.)

The fresh rice wine (from Takara Company in Berkeley) bore no resemblance to sake or Shaoxing, and made us happy indeed: boozy, foamy, and sweet-tart like lemonade, it was dangerously palatable. D'Arcy opted for bocha, creamy churned Tibetan tea with a pinch of salt. We all liked it surprisingly well, and Martha waxed rhapsodic: "It tastes like me, inside." (And she was only on her first rice wine.) There are other tea variations, three good beers, and two well-chosen California wines at minimal markup. With our drinks we gnawed on a thick, chapatilike flatbread called bhaley.

Of our appetizers, lephing ($4.50; pronounced with a hard "p" and an exhaled "h" -- "lep'hing") proved to be a mung bean gelatin mold that even Cosby wouldn't endorse. Despite a shower of soy, vinegar, garlic, and chives, the quivering cube was the quintessence of Sartre's "Bean and Nothingness." But we loved phing alla ($5), with its bean threads, shiitakes, and chopped vegetables wrapped in a "Tibetan crepe" (really a paper-thin bread). This fine mix of flavors and soft/chompy textures came with a clean-flavored spicy green dipping sauce, which seemed to be nothing more than chiles pureed in water. Then there were the seven little momos ($8), their juicy fillings securely wrapped in strong, kreplachlike noodle dough. Even indifferently made by Sherpas on the Nepalese side of the Himalayas, momos have to be the best food in the high country. At Lhasa Moon, they reach new heights. The densely packed minced beef dumplings are flavored with basil; the chicken version includes chives, and the vegetable ones are spiked with mint. They come with a hillock of lemon-dressed cabbage and a fervid fresh red-chile dipping sauce. The fillings of the appealing carnivorous varieties taste something like won tons or siu mai. The sensational veg version, with forest-green stuffing, tastes like nothing you've had before.

Entrees? We had several. Lhabu dhikrul ($9.50) was a country lamb stew with daikon radish and spinach leaves in a thin, brothy sauce. The soft lamb was pleasantly muttonish in flavor, the daikon savory. With this came tingmo, a puffy, garlic-laced steamed bread. "I can't handle it, I had it three times a day for two months," said D'Arcy. Well, I want it for breakfast twice a week for three months. Phingsha ($9.75; can you say "phingsha?") consisted of beef slices sauteed to the toughness of old yak, with succulent, grainy bean threads and a kicky, sweetish red sauce spiked by a Tibetan peppercorn called Emma, more elusive and penetrating than Jane Austen's heroine. Kongpo shaptak ($9) also had yak-hard sliced beef, in a fascinating, creamy-textured spicy red sauce with Parmesan cheese (yak cheese being unavailable). A sublime vegetarian thukpa ngopa ($9.50; now you've mastered "ph," try "th" and a throaty "k" -- "t'hugkpa") featured delicate-flavored baked thin egg noodles in an ethereal sauce, topped with lightly cooked snow peas, bok choy, shiitake, greens, and chives, so balanced and harmonious that Martha said, "This is like Zen monastery cooking." Neither of us hangs out in Zen monasteries, but that sounded right.

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