Although Indian food gets top billing on Mani’s Kitchen’s bright red sign, it’s the second cuisine listed — Himalayan — that hints at what makes the unassuming Pinehurst restaurant special: its treasure map of a menu. If X marks the spot here, it’s not because of the Indian fare, which is certainly delicious and quick, but similar to that served at many other places in town, including owner Mani Chhetri’s previous Capitol Hill Indian restaurant, India Express. Rather, the dotted line here starts with Chhetri’s childhood in Bhutan, hence the Bhutanese chile-cheese dish ema datchi; it pads down to a Buddhist boarding school in a West Bengal hill town full of Tibetan refugees, which explains the presence of the Tibetan noodle soup, thukpa; and then it trots into Chhetri’s wife’s home nation of Nepal, referenced with a weekend-only Nepali thali platter.
Despite more than a decade in Seattle restaurants, Chhetri only finally added these highly personal dishes to the menu when he opened Mani’s Kitchen in late 2017, at 12327 Roosevelt Way NE.
A year ago, Chhetri thought he was done with restaurants. The changing landscape of business ownership chased him out after 12 years at the helm of Capitol Hill’s India Express, and in May 2017, he and his wife, Sheila, sold the shop. Their son graduated from the University of Washington the following month, and Sheila took a job at Bartell Drugs. “We had health insurance. We were good,” says Chhetri. But he wasn’t quite ready to step away from the stove, so he began prodding for a commissary kitchen — just to do the occasional catering.
Instead, he stumbled on an opportunity to finally open his dream restaurant: a move-in-ready spot in quiet Pinehurst, a lower-rent area. A place he could warm with orange walls and the smell of his own chai, where he could hang photos of his home countries and hear the soft sounds of people enjoying the food of his personal history.
“Bhutanese food is very rare,” Chhetri says, describing it having a lot of cheese and being very spicy, though he admits he uses milder peppers here in the U.S. than are traditional at home. “If you like mushrooms, and you like cheese, you’ll like Bhutanese food,” he says. Normally there’d be pork, too, but out of respect for the neighboring halal shop, there’s no pork anywhere on the menu.
Chhetri describes the Nepalese food on the menu as “like a milder version of Indian food,” with lots of goat. The same flavors and spices, but in dishes that are lighter and brighter. “Our platter,” he says of the thali, “is more fresh, with mustard greens, lemons, and chiles.”
Meanwhile, the dumplings and noodles in the Tibetan section come from the hill station where he and Sheila studied as children — this is what they would eat when they went into town, along with the Indo-Chinese fusion so popular in that part of India.
Chhetri left Bhutan in 1991: The political situation there was bad, particularly for members of the Hindu minority, like him, in the southern part of the country. He and a pregnant Sheila moved to her homeland in Nepal, but Nepal never felt like home for him. “In your own country, you’re spoonfed,” he says; in Nepal, on the other hand, he was unable to find a job. He left to go to culinary management school in Bombay, then interned in various five-star hotels there before returning to Nepal as a resident manager for a luxury hotel.
Things went well until more political issues arose: During the bloody Nepalese Civil War, which began in 1996, various Maoist groups would demand “donations” from area businesses. As the hotel’s resident manager, Chhetri was the person answering the door during these thinly veiled extortion attempts, and there were only so many times he felt comfortable putting gun-toting insurgents off with the excuse that he was just a worker, not the boss. His new country was no longer safe for him. Sheila was pregnant again, this time with a daughter, and Chhetri, again, had to leave, alone.
In 2001, he arrived in the U.S. and received political asylum, moving first to New York, then on to San Francisco. He worked in gas stations, at 7-Eleven, anything to make ends meet. “Every time you come to a new country,” he says, “you start over from scratch.” Then one day, he got a call from his old boss at the hotel in Nepal: A restaurant in which the boss had invested in Seattle was having issues; could Mani come and help? He left the next morning, returning a few weeks later only to grab a few boxes.
By 2004, Chhetri was able to bring over Sheila and their kids, and shortly thereafter, he bought an existing Indian restaurant on Capitol Hill. He tried to introduce the non-Indian menu items he now serves at Mani’s Kitchen, but the limitations of a small kitchen and smaller space, plus the impatient Capitol Hill crowds, meant longer waits that few people would bear, and Chhetri had to remove the items from the menu.
The non-Indian foods Chhetri makes — Nepali, Bhutanese, Indo-Chinese, and Tibetan — he cooks to order. When a Mani’s customer orders Tibetan momos, it takes Chhetri 20 minutes to prepare and serve the steamed dumplings. When an order comes in for Nepali food, that’s when he starts cooking the chicken. The Indian food is the only element that comes out right away, even when diners order a mix of cuisines, since it’s prepped in big batches. It’s a balancing act.
At India Express, much of Chhetri’s business was delivery, and customers wanted their food fast. Delivery sustained the Indian restaurant at first, but ultimately contributed to its downfall. In the early days, Chhetri was the only one doing delivery. But in the early 2010s, websites like GrubHub and BiteSquad moved in, followed by apps such as UberEats — soon everyone delivered, and the companies charged the restaurants huge fees that ate into Chhetri’s profits. Rent skyrocketed, and in 2017, he sold the restaurant, thinking he was done with the business.
But to paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when Chhetri thought he was out, he got pulled back in. In his search for a kitchen from which to cater, he found an Indian restaurant owner with some health issues who wanted to sell his Pinehurst business. The lower rent of the area meant Chhetri could take over the space without going back to the fast-paced hustle and seven-day work weeks of Capitol Hill. It also meant he would be able to serve his own food his own way.
Almost immediately after Mani’s Kitchen opened, customers fell in love: Online reviews fawned over the the Chhetris’ kindness and warmth before moving on to praise both the Indian standards and the Himalayan specialties, lesser known here, that Chhetri could finally afford to cook. “Indians call and ask about the gobi Manchurian,” he says of the Indo-Chinese cauliflower dish; to anyone with an affinity for flavorful goat meat, he recommends the Nepal-style bone-in goat, khasi ko masu. Tender Tibetan momos, stuffed with chicken or vegetables, and noodle soups are born crowd-pleasers, especially for groups with kids. Curious customers dig into the spicy-cheesy wonder of ema datchi, a wildly popular traditional dish in Bhutan.
Each of the menu’s non-Indian food sections has just a few options, but those dishes, so meaningful to the arc of Chhetri’s life, quickly convert customers who order them. For people new to the cuisines, Chhetri sees the menu as an easy introduction: familiar dishes on the Indian section, plus the chance to branch out and try something else.
And if people continue to order these gems from Bhutan, Tibet, and Nepal? Mani smiles at the thought: Then he’ll add more dishes from these key points along his treasure map.