Address: 1, The Boulevard, Balham High Rd, Balham, London SW17 7BW
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: Unique Nepalese bistro serving pukka Himalayan dishes between Balham and Tooting
I've been walking past Gurkha's for years but have never quite made it in. Even after lockdown had lifted, and there was finally a chance to visit restaurants again, Gurkha's was off the menu on account of a refurbishment. Nevertheless, an extension of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme at Gurkha's meant there was the perfect opportunity to finally try this Nepalese joint in September.
Joining me again were Angela and Nate, last seen at the imaginatively named Pure Indian Cooking, Fulham pre-lockdown. Together we ventured in to see if Gurkha's would live up to the reputation of the fearless soldiers that gave it it's name.
Gurkha's was established in 2003 in the heart of Balham under the name Light of Gurkha. Later on, it relocated further south to the corner of Balham High Road and Elmfield Road adopting it's shorter moniker in the process. Despite moving, it's position as the only Nepalese restaurant in the area has been permanent and this is really what sets Gurkha's apart from the many Asian eateries nearby. Squeezed between India's northern border and China, Nepal is a very diverse cultural region and Gurkha's menu reflects this fusion of influences.
The restaurant itself is also unique with its option of seating outside and its Himalayan paraphernalia within. Ornate temple bells flank the entrance whilst the walls are adorned with Tibetan horns, khurkuri knives, and various Himalayan mountain prints. Bright lighting, Nepalese music and indoor plants add extra verdure to what is a generally pleasant surround.
Starters and sides
Rashilo Bhat (rice)
One glance at the menu and you can see things are a little different here, not least the Nepali names for dishes that may be more familiar to British diners under other, Indian names. The starters are where a mix of influences are seen most, not least in the momo steamed dumplings that have their origins in Tibetan cuisine, but are popular across southwest China, the Himalayas and north India. Despite this, the lamb and herb filled momo cha weren't particularly exciting and ours were even a little cold. The tareko fareshi - deep fried courgette - were equally disappointing, with the mango chutney doing little to add flavour to these rather stodgy fritters.
The breads were more exciting with generous fillings that packed a punch. The piro bread in particular had a real kick to its full-loaded potato centre while the guliyo roti was similar to a peshwari naan in flavour. Also enjoyable were the two beers on offer: the Gurkha - a smoother Cobra like lager, and the Khukuri - another lager, but with a more distinct, bitter flavour. Both are brewed in the UK by Nepalese restauranteurs and worth checking out.
Overall, with the momo and tareko quite average, it's only a 6/10 for starters and sides, helped by the beers and breads. Maybe the chulli dishes from the clay oven would have elevated scores further, but sadly not on this occasion.
For mains we avoided the seafood given Nepal's proximity to the sea, instead opting for seemingly safer curry-style options. We had three curries in fact: one lamb, chicken and veg option. The vegetable based lukla simi was described as mixed beans and peas cooked in a rich spicy tomato sauce and sadly was as prosaic as that sounds, despite the menu also promising it to be 'absolutely delicious (it wasn't).
Luckily, the korshani chicken and mayur lamb were more redeeming. The lamb, whilst rather plain looking, had a rich, sugary tomato flavour and generous amounts of tender meat that packed a welcome, spicy punch. The chicken also had the same sweetness that underpinned all the dishes we tried, but with a more onion based sauce. Still, neither challenged the very best further down the road in Tooting and, let down by the lukla simi, it's only a 6 for Curry.
Face-masked and visored it can't be fun being a waiter in these COVID days, but the staff at Gurkha's soldiered on with smiles on their faces...well, as far as we could tell. They were politer and slightly more attentive than average, but perhaps more disciplined than friendly. No complaints and no incident beyond the marginally cold momo, it's another 7.
Value for money
On this occasion we benefited from a Sunak-smashing 20% off all food that was greatly appreciated, but on grounds of fairness I'll have to ignore when marking. The meat curries here usually weigh in at at least £11.25 which is quite punchy compared to the value on offer for under £10 in Tooting. Likewise, the Himalayan portions weren't mountainous, although the meat within them was generous. The little extra cost can be justified by the slightly nicer atmosphere, but Gurkha's ultimately isn't the best value dining around.
It's fair to say Gurkha's didn't light us up, but it did offer a break from the norm, and an enjoyable evening nonetheless. The Nepalese dishes were certainly different, with the breads particularly interesting, but sadly some lacked fighting spirit. It's therefore only a mid table performance overall.