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March 15-21, 2006

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First Bite


By Jonah Raskin

I order the same dishes every time I go to Shangri-La, the nifty Nepalese restaurant near Sonoma State University. Maybe I'm in a rut. Or maybe it's just that I'm addicted to the texture and the taste of palak paneer—spinach and cheese—($7.99) or the creamy chicken curry ($6.99), both of which come with fluffy basmati rice. I always order the naan, too, usually the garlic basil naan ($2.49). Occasionally, I break with tradition and go for the chicken tandoori ($12.95), which arrives—sizzling, steaming and all spiced-up—on a bed of onions and peppers. If I want it hot, the kitchen makes it hot—or medium or mild. Once, at dinner, the chicken curry arrived disappointingly mild, and I sent it back. The next time, it came back on fire and made me very happy.

Shangri-La is indeed a culinary paradise, as its name suggests. It's the only restaurant I know of in walking distance of the SSU campus that offers tasty food, hearty food and filling food. And so it's no wonder that students and teachers—really, everyone from campus—flock there at lunchtime and in the evenings, too. On Friday and Saturday nights it can be too crowded and, unfortunately, service lags. But that hasn't stopped me from going back—especially after the lunch-hour rush, when I sprawl out as though I own the place and sometimes hold office hours there. There's no pretentiousness about it, and I never feel that I'm back in the deferential days of the British Empire—the cloying ambiance sometimes felt at traditional Indian restaurants.

Once in a while, especially on a cold, rainy day, I start with the daal—hot lentil soup ($2.99)—and if I'm lucky, the bowl comes filled all the way to the rim. When I go to Shangri-La with a crowd, we'll order samosas, the fried pasty shells filled with cumin-seasoned potatoes, as an appetizer ($3.99). Then we have lamb curry ($7.99) or fish tandoori, usually made with fresh salmon ($14.99.) You can drink beer imported from India; a large bottle of the Taj Mahal ($5.50) will cool you off, and so will a small King Fisher ($2.99).

The owners come from Nepal. They even converse in Nepalese with my colleague Liz who lived in Katmandu, a hippie destination, years ago. I don't speak the language and haven't been there. But Liz assures me that Shangri-La offers authentic Nepalese food. The dishes taste the same, time after time, but that's not a criticism. I like the predictability, and I know precisely what I'm going to get every time I go. Sometimes the familiar is just what I need.

Shangri-La, 1708 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. 707.793.0300.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.