The restaurant honors the ‘divine in you’
Swadesh Shrestha is careful to inspect every plate that exits and enters the kitchen of Namaste café, which opened at 25th and Hennepin in March.
First, Shrestha checks to make sure that every dish is presentable. After customers have eaten, he examines their plates for leftovers to determine whether a customer enjoyed his or her meal. A plate licked clean is satisfying. Food leftover troubles him.
“I feel so bad even if there’s just one piece of meat left. I feel guilty if someone didn’t like it,” he said.
Shrestha, 35, co-owns the restaurant with his wife Rayjee Aryal, 32, and his brother Saujanya, 33, nicknamed Sonny.
Such tender loving care is conveyed through the restaurant’s name. Namaste translates as “I honor the divine in you.”
That’s evident inside as well. The restaurant is painted in inviting and warm tones – orange, yellow, red and brown – colors inspired by the houses tucked in the Himalayans.
The East Isles restaurateurs are originally from Nepal and have lived in the area for five years. Sonny attended college in Texas before moving to Minneapolis. Swadesh and his wife, a computer programmer, left Kathmandu for Minneapolis when she received a job offer with MQ Software. They’re a tightly knit trio – they are family, business partners and best friends. They often go out to eat together and always have company.
Formerly, they owned Himalayan Chai, a teashop in Lowry Hill East, where they converted many coffee addicts into loyal tea drinkers. It was open for four years before it closed in July.
Similar to the people-to-people business in Nepal where his family has patronized the same grocer for generations, the Shresthas strive to establish rapport with customers. Already, many of their loyal followers, whom they recognize by what kind of tea they drink, have rediscovered them in the space beneath the gift shop they also own, called Little Kathmandu.
It carries other goods from Nepal, such as singing bowls that produce a musical reverberation after being struck (which Swadesh imports directly from the world’s master of singing bowls), Buddha statues, rugs, Tibetan furniture, silver jewelry, and handmade arts and crafts.
Many of the pieces come from the businesspeople his father works with in Nepal – advocates for women’s rights in India. Additionally, Swadesh designs a fashion line under his name, “Swadesh.” His hand-woven cotton jackets lined with fleece are a staple. They come in earth tones and sell for $49. The hooded jackets are especially popular at the Uptown Farmers’ Market. He’s sold more than 1,000 of them. Most of his income comes from the jackets, singing bowls and rugs.
Setting up shop
Little Kathmandu used to be located on the first floor of the house-turned-restaurant and retail shop while the Nepalis lived on the third floor. When the Shresthas decided to open Namaste, they moved Little Kathmandu to the second floor. For living space, Swadesh, Aryal, their 1-year-old son Surya and Sonny moved out of the building and into a nearby house together. They remodeled the shop’s interior and arranged Namaste to be comfortable, like a friend’s living room.
Tables and chairs come in honey-colored wood with crimson cushions. Votives are set at every table. Paintings that Swadesh has collected over the years from contemporary Nepalese artists hang on the bright walls while crinkled curtains adorn the windows. Indian music plays in the background. There’s also a porch with café tables. There’s talk of opening a beer garden outside as well.
The energetic Swadesh and Sonny arrive at Namaste which serves lunch and dinner, daily at 7:30 a.m. They often work 17-hour days.
The brothers mix all of the spices from scratch and in small batches. None of their recipes includes soda, which can make your stomach feel bloated. Many of their ingredients come from local farmers. They hand-roll the bread.
“That’s why people like our food. It’s very fresh. You can taste it,” Swadesh said. “We’re trying to present the food itself, so you can taste all the ingredients.”
“Here, try this,” he offered, holding a plate of Dal, or fried lentils, which looks kind of like a croissant.
Sonny chimed in, “When we were little, it was our job to make the Dal. We would knead the dough and we learned how to twist it.”
The sweet concoctions they served at Himalayan Chai are available once again at Namaste, in addition to natural and organic Nepalese fare. Swadesh and Sonny prepare all of the chais themselves since they don’t trust anyone else to do it just right, they agreed, exchanging knowing glances and smiles.
The Shresthas have a long legacy of cultivating tea. Their father, who exports the teas worldwide from his plantation in Nepal, is the 23rd generation to grow tea leaves. They also come from a long food tradition. “In India, there are two ways of cooking, at home or in a restaurant. You fry onions when you make curry at home. In a restaurant you boil the onion,” Swadesh said. “Cooking has become our common sense.”
Longtime customer Thomas LeViness, who lives in the Lake Nokomis area, quit drinking coffee on account of the teas the Shresthas introduced to him. Now he prefers the dark paleswan tea, which he buys in bulk.
That’s not all. Since the Shrestha’s opened the restaurant, he’s enjoying the meals they serve, too. “I like the spices. Their entrees have a lot of spice, but they’re not spicy. You can taste all the different spices at the same time.”
That’s what Nepalese food is all about; not overpowering the food with the spices, so that you can taste the meat and vegetables, too, explained Swadesh. “If someone is eating food out of my hand, it has to be pure. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. For someone’s body, we sell things that have won our pride.”
For the body
Namaste offers a variety of dishes: curries inspired by Southeast Asian cuisine, lentil soup, mamacha or dumplings filled with lamb, vegetables and spices, aloo chop (deep-fried potato cakes mixed with green peas and spices), salads, basmati and brown rice, and more. Many of the dishes are seasoned with Jimbu, a spice from the mountains of Nepal that makes you hungry just smelling it.
“Everyday you work for food. That’s the basic thing,” said Sonny, who spends most of his time in the kitchen. But he cautioned, “We don’t just like our food. We like all kinds of food.”
Mary Grady, who lives on the third floor above Little Kathmandu, said that she visits the café almost daily. Her favorites are the spicy, not-too-sweet masala chai and eggplant with garlic and scallions. Grady was never a tea fan before she met Swadesh at the Uptown Farmers’ Market three years ago. She’s been buying tea from him ever since. Grady said she enjoys the café’s familiar atmosphere and hospitality.
“Anyone who wants to come in is greeted no matter who they are,” she said. “They recognize the God in everyone who comes in the door.”
Grady is also delighted by the tidbits of Nepali culture the brothers willingly impart. Such as the story of the Green Tara figurine, known as a Buddhist guardian, propped neatly in an alcove between the two dining rooms or the Buddha carving that signifies the life cycle of Buddhism.
Swadesh said he tries to embrace the positives about both Nepali and American living. In Kathmandu, it’s easy to escape the urban grind.
“You can drive 20 minutes out of the city and already you’re far away from it. There’s a countryside with beautiful mountains,” he recalled.
But Minneapolis has its benefits, too, he said.
“You don’t have to be a billionaire to live happily and luckily,” he said. “Everything we eat and drink is good.”
Namaste Café is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday it’s open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. For more information, contact Namaste at 827-2496 or check out www.namastecafe.net.