When we think of Nepalese cuisine, a lot of us may picture something similar to Indian food. For a long time, many Nepalese restaurants, both in Ireland and internationally, would simply resort to serving Indian dishes and brand them as Nepalese, out of worry that diners may not understand or accept truly traditional Nepalese dishes.
Shiva and Lina Gautam came to Ireland with a similar thought process – what would succeed? What will people come back for? Opening a restaurant of any kind is always a risk, and that risk is amplified when you throw in an unfamiliar cuisine to a population that may only know that particular country from the news; as some exotic destination they could only ever dream of visiting. However, over time, Shiva and Lina realised that there will always be people who are willing to try new things, taste new flavours, and become more adventurous. That is how Monty’s of Kathmandu has managed to be a thriving, successful business for 26 years.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, I sped-walked from my car to Monty’s of Kathmandu, located in the heart of the city centre in Temple Bar. Immediately greeted by Lina’s friendly face, I could hear the chefs working away, preparing for their lunch-time opening. I sat with Lina and chatted away, getting to know her a little better, as she explained how her and Shiva met, how they moved to Ireland 26 years ago, and how Monty’s came to be. Meanwhile, Shiva is busily running in and out – dealing with all kinds of queries and little things that come up before opening for the day. We eventually sat down together and spoke about all things Monty’s.
Shiva and Lina lived in the UK for the first 10 months of their marriage, where Shiva worked as an engineer. An opportunity to expand the Monty’s brand came about, where a friend told Shiva that there was not a single Nepalese restaurant in Dublin. An underrepresented cuisine at the time, Shiva and Lina took the horse by the reigns and moved to Dublin in 1997 to open the restaurant. At the time, there were only 4 Nepalese families here, so it was up to them to shape how Nepalese cuisine would be viewed in Ireland.
Similar to many South Asian countries, food is a massive part of Nepalese culture. Every festival celebrated in Nepal revolves around food; every family gathering, every party, and every occasion – food is at the core. Nepalese cuisine is extremely rich; it’s full of a range of dishes that are now reflected in Monty’s menu.
We try to go to restaurants away from Ireland to see what they’re doing… almost always, it’s quite sad, Nepalese restaurants are serving Indian food, which doesn’t really reflect Nepalese cuisine, and we’ve always said we want to reflect Nepalese cuisine.
Monty’s didn’t start serving fully Nepalese dishes, though. Shiva grew up working in a Nepalese restaurant where most of the dishes were Indian, so when Monty’s first opened, that was the kind of food they served. However, Shiva told me that “every six months, I would change the menu more towards Nepalese dishes… I take Indian food out.” He said it took them a while to have the menu they do now, but now almost the whole menu consists of traditional Nepalese dishes. Even something as simple as having lamb on the bone, something they were surprised to have been received so well by the Irish community, is now extremely popular. They have now expanded to serving goat, and in fact, Monty’s is the only restaurant that their particular goat farmer supplies!
Since so many Nepalese restaurants choose to serve Indian dishes, I asked them what the differences are between the two cuisines.
We are in between China, Tibet and India, so what happens is that we get influences from these culinary worlds… we do use spices like [they do in] Indian cuisine… and if you have Indian cuisine and Nepalese cuisine side by side, yes, there are similarities because we use very similar spices, but you will know [the difference].
Lina mentions that their dishes are not stewed as long as Indian curries would be – the vegetables are left a little crunchier, they use less oil and butter in their dishes, and ghee is very rarely used in Nepalese cuisine. Additionally, they added that their food is ‘spicy’, as in, it uses a lot of spices. Nepalese food does not tend to use a lot of chillies, and the flavour shines through the fresh spices that they make in-house. Myself and Lina realised that in both Palestinian and Nepalese cuisine, the food itself is not particular hot, but we tend to eat fresh or pickled chillies on the side with many meals.
Initially, their customers were people who had visited Nepal and were coming to the restaurant to experience similar dishes to what they ate there. Through word of mouth, and the well-known Monty’s name in the UK, the business slowly grew. In the beginning, they did not have much of a budget dedicated to marketing, but they took out an advertisement campaign that made them very popular amongst the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland. Shiva stated that they owe a lot to that community and their immense support when they were first starting out.
An important figure that really helped their business take off was Tom Doorley. A review from him in their early days doubled their business overnight, with journalists coming in regularly to review the restaurant. They both stated that their lack of knowledge about who a lot of the figures that came to eat at Monty’s ended up working in their favour, since they treated them just like every customer, allowing their delicious food to do all the talking. This has now developed into somewhat of a reputation, where a number of A-list celebrities will occasionally visit, particularly due to the fact that Shiva and Lina do not treat them any differently to their other customers.
Recently, their reputation has only grown as they have introduced an impressive selection of wines to their repertoire. Internationally recognised, they have won awards for their wines alone, and often get visitors who have been recommended Monty’s by well-known figures in the wine industry purely for their wine list. These visitors quickly become regulars after tasting the food. They now have a private wine room, available for hire for those who want to enjoy the full wine experience.
Oftentimes, restaurant owners have a different favourite dish off the menu than what would be considered their ‘signature’ dish. At Monty’s, it’s their Momo’s. Almost all cuisines have some kind of dumpling that is a childhood favourite and grows into a fond comfort food. Momo’s are a steamed dumpling filled with either meat or veggies, and at Monty’s, it’s a dish that everyone both young and old always comes back for.
From almost the beginning, we required 24 hour notice [for Momo’s]. It was a really good marketing [tactic], because at the time we had very few staff… and it takes time to make Momo’s… It’s like making ravioli by hand… everything is made on the premises. And now, we have a dedicated section on the menu, where there are three or four different types… served in different styles.
In terms of their personal favourite dishes, Shiva’s would be their Jyogi Bhat (Sages’ Rice), which is similar to a Nepalese Biryani. They both love the Saag Chaat, and for Lina, she adores every single one of Monty’s starters. There is a lovely story behind her favourite main dish, Chicken Chilli Nanglo, which Shiva describes:
That dish was actually the first dish we had as a married couple, so I put that dish on the menu… It was a homage to our first meal together.
[Lina] Nanglo was the name of that restaurant, and we had chicken chilli in that restaurant, and that’s when Shiva said okay, we’ll call it Chicken Chilli Nanglo.
One item they both love that is also one of the more popular dishes on their menu is the Mungling Dhal Bhat, which is a more traditional way of eating their food, where it’s a selection of different dishes in the middle to share between 2, served in their traditional bronze plates and bowls. The name comes from a village in Nepal called Mungling, where tired and hungry travellers stop to rest and eat some food.
The key to standing the test of time? Consistency. And a family of chefs in the back!
The main thing is consistency, I’ve always said that to my staff. If you’re going to make crap food, make it crap all the time. If you’re going to make good food, make it good all the time – don’t be a yo-yo. Our chef has been there for 22 years – it’s the same hand. We are pretty much a family restaurant, most of the guys are all close cousins.
Their consistency and long-standing existence in the city has led to an abundance of people that have almost grown up with the restaurant. Lina tells me that so many people have had their first dates here, returning years later as married couples for their special occasions. They’ve watched children grow up with each visit, who once came when they were very young to now finishing college or getting married. Even now, they have regulars who once visited eating very few of the dishes and slowly developing their palates to love everything on the menu.
They demonstrate the personal relationship they have with their regulars by telling me a story of a memorial they held for a dear customer who passed away suddenly. Shiva organised a golf and dinner memorial day for him, a man who brought so many customers to Monty’s, who brought their families and friends, and make it a mission to visit Monty’s whenever they’re in Dublin.
I asked them about what it’s like working together as husband and wife:
We don’t really have any major disagreements. I think we have a similar vision of how we should be presented… and Lina is fantastic… she can always recreate our taste. We don’t dumb down our food for the Western palate.
Lina rarely comes in to work in the restaurant anymore. Instead, she comes in to teach the classes, and then oftentimes will go on TV, especially since the release of her cookbook. Myrtle and Darina Allen from Ballymaloe Cookery School suggested the idea to Lina in 2001 when they came to her first cooking demonstration in the restaurant. Lina was still busy with her young children, but the idea never left her mind, and she ended up publishing her cookbook in 2013. It was the only book that Darina Allen had written a foreword for, that wasn’t for one of her family members!
With the book, it was never about making money, but rather showing Lina’s journey from Nepal. The recipes are all about home cooking, with the aim for readers to recreate the dishes Nepalese families make at home on a day-to-day basis.
They note that there are always challenges with opening and running a restaurant.
Not all of us are blessed with having a massive, deep pocket, to spend a fortune on marketing promotions. When we first opened, Ireland had hardly any ethnic people, so it was very difficult to find staff. [And then when you do], the challenge is that the competition opens and the staff who worked for you, they’ve gone to other places and they’ve taken your dishes, because obviously that’s all they know.
An issue very familiar to many business owners at the moment are the rising overhead costs, which is Monty’s biggest challenge.
I would say our profit has gone way down. Even though our business is similar… [it is] because our cost of sales is really high, from utility to cost of services. It’s not just us, it’s everyone – we’re all in the same boat… I can only increase the [price of dishes] by so much… people have to come in… but we’re here to make money, and the profit is literally zero. If you’re lucky, you’re breaking even. We need customers now more than ever.
Since opening, their proudest moment overall has been putting Nepalese food on the map.
People are saying Nepalese restaurant, not Indian restaurant. We’re not being connected with Indian restaurants – we are stand alone, and that was always the goal. Because of our restaurant, there are many other restaurants similar to ours that have opened and spread the word… people know more about Nepalese cuisine.
In front of me, an array of awards adorn their walls. Shiva tells me that lately they’ve won awards for their wine, specifically with their focus on food and wine pairings. The assumption may be that Nepalese food does not work with wine, but in fact, they complement each other extremely well.
To finish off our chat, I asked them if they had any future plans.
We’re always planning. Never say never!
I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!