October 4, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:49 am
It's one thing to enter a restaurant and find a friendly staff. It's something different to walk in and be treated like an honored guest.
At the new location of Little Nepal on Flintridge Drive, I discovered staff members who make everyone who walks through the door feel special. Without fail, they were enthusiastic, courteous and prompt. The food was delicious, including the lunchtime buffet, and the renovations have given the space a warm, welcoming and kitsch-free atmosphere.
During a lunch visit, I asked our waiter how a particular dish was made. He wasn't certain, so he went into the kitchen to ask. He didn't come back with an answer, he came back with an owner. I asked how the carrot pudding (Gajarka halwa) was made. He laughed and said, "I don't like to cook. That's why I own a restaurant." Then he explained that the chefs use a spice paste blend to flavor the carrots, cream, dates and nuts.
When we were paying our bill and mentioned having a vegetarian daughter, we were given a coupon for the Sunday vegetarian dinner buffet. We were also offered a take-out menu, with a proud declaration that they deliver within a 5-mile radius. (I checked. We're at 4.7 miles, and I couldn't be happier.)
All the great service and friendliness in the world won't help if the food isn't good, though.
I started with the lunch buffet ($7.99), figuring this would give me a chance to assess attention to detail and try a variety of dishes.
What a treat. This is one of the best buffets, of any cuisine, in town. You'll get the dishes you expect, such as curried chicken, dal and tandoori chicken, along with unexpected items like yogurt curry and banana pakora. The dishes are frequently replaced or replenished, so you don't have to worry about getting something that has sat too long. The daily buffet also has plenty of dishes for vegetarians.
The vegetable samosas were big, crispy pastries filled with peas and cubes of tender potato, lightly flavored with curry. Worth noting is that the alu muttar, also a spicy dish of potatoes and peas, has a completely different flavor profile.
One of the strengths of Little Nepal is the care taken to give similar ingredients (potatoes, peas, chicken, tomato) vastly different flavor profiles across the dishes.
The tandoori chicken was emblematic of all the chicken dishes here: moist and juicy. The leg I had was big and plump, brick-colored from the marinade of yogurt, turmeric and dried chilies.
The chicken curry and yogurt curry (with soft dumplings) were tasty, and paired with well-rounded sauces that complemented the meat in one and the pillowy dumplings in the other.
All of Little Nepal's sauces are made fresh. The spicy red chili relish comes in medium and hot, with tangy notes. The green mint chutney is a tangy emerald marvel that I would eat on anything. This version is more herbaceous than hot, and has a nice balance between the cilantro and the mint. The tamarind chutney is thinner than some, with an emphasis on sweet-and-sour fruitiness.
There's a pronounced fresh dairy flavor from the cream in the saag paneer (spinach with homemade cheese), which differs from the buttery flavor in the carrot pudding. No two dishes have the same profile of spices, chilies, seasonings or dairy products, so there's no chance the flavors will blur together on your tongue or in your memory.
The dinner visit meant it was time to branch out. The meal began with a basket of pappadums, shatteringly crisp rounds made from black gram flour with a light, nutty taste. These came with ramekins of tamarind and mint chutneys. Our waitress was happy to discuss the heat levels available in each dish to make sure diners got what they were expecting.
For an appetizer, we chose the vegetable platter ($7.95). This included two of the good samosas we had sampled at the buffet, plus a variety of vegetable pakoras, fried in a mildly spicy, sienna-colored batter of gram flour. Some were flat disks of chopped vegetables, while others were bite-size pieces of cauliflower and zucchini dipped in the same savory batter. Paneer pakora uses chunks of soft, mild, unaged cheese, and the banana pakora is a sweetened dough flavored with banana.
The lamb masala ($16.95) is chunks of slow-braised lamb in a creamy tomato and yogurt sauce. The heat was medium, as requested. The chicken vindaloo ($15.45) was requested Indian hot, and it was fiery but not unmanageable. The heat is a subtle one, starting at the back of the mouth and building forward. Also tomato based, this sauce has a fresher, more straightforward flavor without any dairy, which accents the chilies, garlic and ginger. The chunks of potato offer a nice contrast to the chicken, as well as a way to soak up more of the delicious sauce.
The combination biryani ($17.95) was a dish that lost a little something compared to the spicier dishes at the table. The aromatic basmati rice was studded with chunks of lamb, chicken, cauliflower, tomato and broccoli, but the subtle flavorings of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom were lost in the mix. The flavors were more pronounced, and more satisfying, when I heated the leftovers the next day.
If you're unsure of what to order, you can try the Little Nepal Vegetarian ($16.95) listed under Thali Specialties. Besides fragrant basmati rice and chewy, griddled naan bread, you get a sample of saag paneer (spinach with fresh cheese), dal makhani (tender lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and tomatoes) and vegetable korma.
The latter is described as vegetables cooked with whipped cream and nuts, but that description should be thrown out. The vegetables are braised in a type of curry sauce flavored with cumin and ground coriander, given a creamy finish by the addition of cream.
Restaurant character: Recently renovated, Little Nepal's second eatery in town serves up delicious Indian food with fantastic service. Rating total: 4.5 out of 5 stars Food: 4.5 out of 5 stars Ambiance: 4 out of 5 stars Service: 4.5 out of 5 stars Address: 4820 Flintridge Drive Contact: 598-3428, www.lnepal.com Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 4:30-9 p.m. daily Entr?s: $10.95-$20.95 Alcohol: Not yet Credit cards: Yes Vegetarian options: Many. Saag Paneer ($13.95), Bhindi Masala ($12.95) Wi-Fi: No
WHAT'S ONLINE As of Jan. 16: - 90 percent of 249 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon - 4 out of 5 stars based on 89 reviews on Yelp - Active on Facebook; search "Little Nepal" - Two violations were corrected during a September inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.