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First Look: Shangri-la Bistro

August 1, 2010

Tibetan cuisine in Marietta
Creative Loafing Atlanta
by Cliff Bostock
Jly 30, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the way
we romanticize ethnic restaurants and debate
their "authenticity" if they deviate from native
ingredients and recipes. Just in case anyone
wonders, I certainly don't exclude myself from that tendency.

Thus, when I heard that a Tibetan restaurant had
opened in Marietta, I made plans to visit the
same evening. I've had a longtime fascination
with Tibetan culture, mainly by way of Shambhala
Training, a brilliant meditation program that was
created by a Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for Westerners.

I've only had one Tibetan dinner in my life and
that was at Lahassa in Paris. It included
classics such as butter tea, momo dumplings, and
a stew of yak or mutton. There wasn't a vegetable
in sight, as I recall, and we found most of the
food bland or, in the case of the butter tea, too
weird for comfort. We became instant friends with
a couple at the adjoining table. They had been to
Tibet and said the food at Lahassa, where they dined frequently, was typical.

So I have no education besides that in Tibetan
cuisine. What I do know is that the food at
Shangrila Bistro (3545 Canton Road, Marietta,
678-388-7878) tastes a lot better to me than the
food at Lahassa, probably precisely because it is
less authentic. The restaurant, which is
decorated with prayer flags and includes a table
full of Tibetan bric-a-brac for sale, actually
features Chinese food as well as Tibetan.

When we sat down, I immediately told the server
that we only wanted Tibetan dishes. He explained
that the Tibetan items were all identified on the
menu. I glanced at it. Tibetan fried chicken
wings? He directed our attention to two appetizer
specials, spicy beef and dumplings stuffed with shrimp and chives. Shrimp?

"Do Tibetans eat shrimp?" I asked. The Himalayan
country is called the "rooftop of the world." It
seemed unlikely its people would eat seafood.

"You have to understand," our server replied,
"that we are about creating Tibetan flavors, but
our ingredients are local. We try to get yak, for
example, but it is difficult."

We resigned ourselves to confusion and ordered
the two starter specials. They kicked off a
thoroughly enjoyable meal. The dumplings arrived
with a crispy filigree atop them — a nice
contrast to the chewy dough wrapping the ground
filling. The spicy beef particularly surprised
us. The tender slices of meat were tossed with
scallions, cilantro, red vinegar, garlic and a rather strong chili.

"Tibetans eat hot food?" I asked the server. He
launched a lecture about the main types of
Chinese food and said that neighboring Sichuan
had a strong impact on Tibet's cuisine, making
some of it quite spicy. This was news to me, but
Tibetan cooking is also heavily influenced by
India, where chilies are also popular. In any
case, very few dishes on the menu are marked "hot and spicy."

We ordered two entrées. The more exotic was
braised lamb ribs served in a large chafing dish
with a vegetable-filled broth that we ladled into
soup bowls. This dish was on the menu for $29.95
but our server said it was half-price on weekends. Whatever, it was stunning.

But I was even more surprised by the plate of
stir-fried beef that was cooked with an
absolutely overwhelming amount of cumin. I don't
typically even like cumin, but this dish was so
deeply flavored, it was fascinating. Bits of
cilantro were played against the cumin here and there.

Pure curiosity led us to order steamed eggplant
with "peanut butter garlic sauce." I found the
eggplant way overcooked and never could locate
the taste of peanut butter, although the diced garlic was in easy view.

A second Shangrila is opening this summer in
Sandy Springs. According to our server, the plan
is to open 10 of the restaurants. I should warn
you that the restaurant is quite small. Mostly,
we saw people picking up take-out orders, and
there were plenty of vacant tables. But it
wouldn't take much of a crowd to pack the place.

Stop poisoning us!

In the last year, I have gotten sick after meals
at three restaurants. I can't prove a
restaurant's food made me ill unless a dining
companion also gets sick. But it's pretty clear
to me when the problem is restaurant sanitation.

I recently read that 11,000 New Yorkers go to
hospitals every year because of food-borne
illness. Because the number is rising, the city
is now requiring restaurants to post the results
of their health-department inspections in a
prominent place. Fulton County already requires that.

However, it appears -- reading the records of
inspections here -- that if a restaurant scores
low, it is given an almost immediate chance to
improve the rating before having to post it. I
can't help wondering, given this, how accurate the posted ratings really are.

And don't think for a second that low ratings are
limited to small restaurants. If you want to
check a Fulton County restaurant's ratings, log
onto www.fultoncountyga.gov/county/health and
click on the link next to "our latest food inspection scores."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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