Dip Raj Magar learned about food while growing up on a farm outside Kathmandu, and he started cooking for himself in fifth grade. But spend some time at Magar’s Royal Nepal restaurant in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood and you’ll realize that the newbie restaurateur’s biggest influence is Blue Duck Tavern, the upscale farm-to-table dining room in DC’s West End.
It was there Magar spent five years as a server. But he wasn’t just delivering food. All the time, he paid attention to the way the chefs sourced their meat—and the tableware, and the tea service, and especially the cocktails and wine (his staff nickname: Baby Somm). Thus, along with a welcome basket of traditional Nepali rice-flour fry bread at Royal Nepal, you can have an expertly smooth cocktail made with bourbon, walnut liqueur, bitters, and house-made cinnamon syrup poured over a clear, orb-shaped piece of ice.
Every week, Magar drives to a farm in Manassas to pick up whole goats and lambs. They make their way into some of the kitchen’s best dishes. (Magar’s chef is another Nepali, Subash Rai, who last cooked in DC’s Fairmont hotel.) Take the momo, or dumplings. Here, you can have them with veggies or chicken ($6), but they’re best stuffed with minced goat ($8) and paired with two tomato sauces, one an aromatic condiment conjured from cashews and peanuts, the other a tart purée from charred tomatoes.
The excellent, and shareable, lamb chops ($22) are marinated in house-made yogurt, roasted in a wood-burning oven, and grandly piled atop a thick slab of pink salt. Magar says the zigzag of balsamic glaze on the plate is just “a little makeup,” but its tanginess pairs well with the smoky meat. Lamb is also the topping to get if you’re going for the Northern Indian–style biryani ($17), the ornately spiced rice dish sided with hard-boiled eggs.
Indian dishes such as the biryani and palak chaat ($7), the crispy spinach dish strewn with yogurt and tamarind, are on the menu because Magar was concerned about getting people unfamiliar with Nepali cuisine in the door. But they’re no afterthought. Rai’s chicken tikka masala ($15) is terrific and, amazingly, dairy-free, save for a drizzle of clarified butter. (Its wonderful richness comes from cashews, not cream.)
If, like me, you believe duck fat is the best fat, the can’t-miss dish here is a side of duck-fried rice ($8). Each grain—along with hunks of duck and shreds of red cabbage, onion, scallion, and carrot—is sheened with the stuff. The idea came from Blue Duck Tavern’s duck-fat fries, a dish that Magar saw nearly every table order there.
Not everything translates so successfully. A cucumber salad ($5) is virtually flavor-free. When dessert rolls around, there’s a molten-chocolate cake ($5) that tastes as bland and overcooked as it is out of place. (Don’t blame Blue Duck —Magar cribbed the recipe from his first job, on a Carnival cruise ship.) Instead, finish the Nepali way with sikarni ($4), a sundae glass of whipped goat’s-milk yogurt spiced with cardamom and saffron.
3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 571-312-5130
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Washingtonian.