Walking down a quiet back street in Tonbridge town centre, passing numerous shops with flashing neon signs advertising takeaways and games arcades, doesn’t instil a great deal of confidence that I’m about to discover a restaurant that’s creating a big buzz in local foodie circles, and garnering five-star ratings on Trip Advisor.
But on arriving at the Gurkha Planet, halfway down Avebury Avenue, I quickly realise that perhaps location isn’t actually everything.
Stepping inside this small but smartly appointed restaurant, its less than salubrious setting all but evaporates thanks to the divine aroma of fragrant Asian spices wafting through from the busy kitchen, and the ambient Himalayan guitar music playing softly in the background.
Then there’s the big warm welcome my family and I are given by the Manager, Dinesh, who smiles, puts his hands together and reverentially bows to us before showing us to our table.
The restaurant, which seats approximately 35, is packed when we visit one Saturday evening, and spying a few of the contented customers tucking into their exotic looking dishes, I immediately see why it holds such appeal for discerning diners. I suddenly feel very hungry…
My husband, two children and I sit down at our table which, like the others, is beautifully dressed with a crisp white tablecloth, posh red napkins and gleaming silver cutlery, and start browsing the menus. Dinesh explains that in Nepalese culture the diner is ‘akin to a god’ and so is treated accordingly.
‘We’re in for a good night then,’ I think, as I wonder whether a divine deity would plump for the spicy squid (£4.95) or the garlicky salmon tikka (£5.25) to start.
We soon discover that much of Nepalese cuisine is a variation on other Asian styles of cooking due to its geographical location.
Set against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalayas, Nepal neighbours India, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh, and as a result has distinctive hints of each country’s cooking characteristics swirling through its culinary roots.
The Gurkha Planet’s menu is certainly reflective of this and has something for everyone to enjoy, whether it’s chargrilled seabass or pork vindaloo.
The restaurant, which Dinesh runs with his two co-chefs, Daya Ram Giri and Pasang Lama, opened a year and a half ago and its name gives a nod to the fact all three served in the Gurkha regiment before coming to England to work in the hospitality industry.
Having trained under the famous Roux brothers, the trio have worked in some of London’s top hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental and Le MÃ©ridien, so it’s no wonder the specialist food they’re serving down here is getting so much attention.
The first thing we savour is a bowl of Chana Chatpat (the Nepalese version of a Bombay Mix), which is brought along to enjoy with our drinks – passion fruit juice for the children and refreshing Gurkha lager for the grown-ups.
Chana Chatpat is made from crispy puffed rice, coriander, red onion and diced cucumber and tomato. It usually has a good chilli kick to it, but due to the younger, tenderer tastebuds at our table the chef holds back on too much heat.
It still tastes great, and is far fresher than its Indian counterpart – and therefore very moreish.
When our stack of starters arrive They are a visual feast. Momo (£4.95) is a typical Nepalese street food and comprises a plate of delicate dumplings filled with pork and fragrant herbs and served with a tomato and sesame chutney. It’s deliciously light, packed with aromatic flavour and gone in seconds.
The spicy, crunchy deep-fried courgettes (£3.95), dipped in a glossy sweet and sour tamarind sauce, are quickly made light work of, too – with even my usually hesitant daughter Isabelle merrily tucking in.
A little bit of tabletop ceremony comes courtesy of the arrival of the Pani Puri (£4.95), which is four dinky, hollowed-out stacks of herby potato mash stuffed with coriander chutney.
Accompanying them is a small jug of tangy mint-flavoured water which you pour into the stacks and then eat all in one go. This proved to be my son Alex’s favourite – not because of the zingy flavours, but thanks to the challenge involved in not letting any of it fall out of your mouth!
When some sticky aubergine pakoda (£3.95) – a kind of onion bhaji-style treat – is delivered to the table, we’re all starting to feel quite full. It’s a good job, then, that Dinesh advises us there will be a minimum 15-minute wait for the main courses as all the meat is cooked from scratch.
We decide it’s probably a good idea to share just a couple of plates between us, and when our generous portion of rich lamb Rogan Josh curry (£7.95) and creamy chicken Nepal (£7.95) – a type of Korma – arrive with a multitude of different accompaniments, including egg fried and pilau rice, plus some sag aloo spinach potatoes and Gurkha green vegetables doused in soy sauce and garlic, it seems that was a wise choice as there’s now very little room left on our table – or in our tummies. We’ll have to try the tempting house special chocolate dessert next time.
Dinesh returns, kindly asking if everything is OK. “It’s more than OK,” I reply, as it really has been a delightful, different and certainly filling dining experience with interesting food flavour combinations and careful consideration to not make our children’s meals too fiery.
It’s also great value for money.
As we walk back down Avebury Avenue, leaving the relaxing ambience of the Gurkha Planet behind us, it’s fair to say that it certainly achieves its aim of serving adventurous Asian food that’s good quality and appeals to all types of tastebuds.
But what sets it apart is the rather charming idea of treating its diners not just as clients but also ‘gods’ – and that is something that really does make Gurkha Planet totally other-worldly.
16 Avebury Avenue, Tonbridge TN9 1TN