Metro Kathmandu

› paulr@sfbg.com

On the list of pleasures a restaurant can offer, let’s agree that unexpectedness sits pretty high. Scene: you are drifting along Divisadero in the lower Haight, a still-scruffy region filled with filling stations, along with cafes and liquor stores whose signage has faded. You are hungry and not feeling especially picky. You stop in front of a place that used to be a decent French bistro, Metro, and note that it is now called Metro Kathmandu. You wonder if it has become a French bistro serving Nepalese food, in some wrinkle of a twist of a trend. Stranger things have happened — they happen all the time. Clearly something has happened; change has come. You shrug your shoulders and, because you detect pangs amidships, you step inside, not supposing that when you emerge, an hour or so later, you will scarcely be able to remember how modest your expectations were as you went in, nor how wildly they were exceeded.

Metro Kathmandu opened over the summer under the auspices of Jacques Manuera, a name that gives us a clue as to why the place is so good so soon. For one of Manuera’s earlier ventures was Baker Street Bistro, an astounding little French jewel tucked into a side street near the Presidio’s Lombard Gate. Manuera knows how to run small restaurants to the highest standards, and with the help of a partner and co-owner, Roshan K, and a gifted chef, Bishnu Chaudhary, he has done it again, this time with a Himalayan accent.

The foods of Nepal aren’t completely exotic here. For the past several years, the adventurous have had a choice between Little Nepal, in Bernal Heights, and Taste of the Himalayas (which replaced a Tibetan restaurant, Lhasa Moon) on Lombard. Those places are good, in their way, but Metro Kathmandu is remarkable, bringing forth dish after splendid dish at low prices in an appealingly modern setting. My dinnertime confrere, never one for fatuous praise ("I don’t need to come back here!" is an oft-made comment), allowed that the restaurant is among the best he’s ever been in.

Well, what is the secret? Little touches, of course, combined with some subtle surprises. Because Nepal lies along the border between India and China, its cooking is Indochinese in the broadest sense, a blend of influences from these two huge neighbors. At a given moment, you could easily mistake chicken momos ($6) — steamed dumplings filled with chicken, garlic, and ginger — for Chinese pot stickers (except they’re not seared on the bottom), and the next moment you are dunking your momo into a chutney of sesame and tomato while daydreaming of the Taj Mahal.

That said, the food seems more Indian than anything else. The department of bread offers roti ($2) and buttery paratha ($3). The kitchen, having presented your table with a complimentary dish of pickled daikon radish, turns out a splendid, creamy dal ($3) in which the red Indian lentils are puréed into a thick, peach-colored sauce for the al dente cooking of dark green (possibly Puy) lentils. This is an unusual and elegant multilayering. Pakodas, or fritters — whether of shrimp ($7) or a vegetarian combination ($6) of baby spinach, onions, and cabbage — are made feather light, yet golden crisp, by a coating of garbanzo bean flour. And saag paneer ($7), spinach cooked in spices with cubes of fresh white cheese, is none the worse for having been enjoyed many times before.

Despite the preponderance of Indian and Chinese influences, the cooking occasionally ranges farther afield. We caught a hint of Thailand in the shrimp masala ($9), whose intensely flavorful sauce seemed to carry some of the thickness and sweetness of coconut milk. And the menu offers an array of kebabs, including a daily fish kebab ($8). One day’s fish was tilapia, which I found a little uninspiring, but at least the kitchen gave the flesh a good spicing up before grilling it, then plated the pieces with quartered tomato slices and long slivers of green bell pepper (though no skewers).

Two dishes were novel to me. The first was chana chatpat ($5), a chickpea salad that differed from its better-known near relation, chana masala, in dispensing with a curry sauce in favor of a toss in a lemon vinaigrette, along with tomato slices and rings of sweet onion. The second, lamb chhoila ($7) featured several kebablike chunks of boneless lamb meat, seared and tossed with a sharp-edged ensemble of ginger, garlic, and chile pepper.

Given the high style of the savory cooking and the handsome redo of the now vividly red dining room — modifications include an encircling belt of Swiss-cheese mirrors, black chairs in an updated taverna style, and clusters of fanciful light fixtures, like big parade balloons with their bottoms cut off — the dessert menu is perfunctory. We did, one evening, treat ourselves to a carrot-cardamom pudding ($5), a molded disk of seasoned, lightly sweetened carrot shreds. I wouldn’t put it on any best-dessert list, but it was unusual, not fattening, and better than the usual choices at such places.

The "metro" in Metro Kathmandu reminds us of the restaurant that once occupied the space, of course, but it also sends a subliminal signal of urbanity. Metro Kathmandu is in some sense an "ethnic" restaurant, and its cooking, while sophisticated and impeccable, is more conservative and traditional than was the case at, say, Tallula, which for a few brief but memorable years fused subcontinental and French themes in the Castro. At the same time, it is a date restaurant, full of style and atmosphere and suggestive energy. Now all you need is a date.

METRO KATHMANDU

Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 6 p.m.–1 a.m.

311 Divisadero, SF

(415) 552-0903

www.metrokathmandu.com

Beer and wine

MC/V

Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible