Nima Sherpa found his American dream at 22,000 feet, on the side of Mt. Everest.
The Nepalese native spent years guiding Westerners up the dangerous face of the world’s tallest mountain, and then cooking for them at Basecamp 2 (at around 23,000 feet above sea level). For more than a decade, he risked his life climbing through ice falls and up sheer rock faces for Americans, Italians and other trekkers. And they, in turn, helped him find his way to Sonoma County, and his dream of one day owning a restaurant.
Sitting in the afternoon sunlight, inside one of the town’s newest restaurants, Sherpa’s Sonoma Grille has been booked solid since opening in late December 2015. His cellphone rings almost constantly, with friends and neighbors seeking a hard-to-find table. Sherpa almost always finds them something, even if it’s at the bar. When the restaurant overflows, he pours champagne for anyone waiting. “I open a lot of bottles of champagne,” he said.
Nima’s no stranger to this West Napa Street location, having worked for restaurateur Carlo Cavallo when it was Sonoma-Meritage Martini Oyster Bar and Grille for more than a decade. Under Cavallo (who now owns the nearby BV Whisky Bar and Grill), Sherpa absorbed the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business from the inside. After Cavallo closed in 2013, the business sat empty for nearly a year until Sherpa took over the lease in 2014, opening one year — to the day — after becoming its tenant.
This isn’t Sherpa’s first restaurant, however. In 2011, Sherpa opened Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen in St. Helena, with a fellow Nepalese native, Chhiring Sherpa, and continues to be a partner. (The two aren’t related. The surname “Sherpa” refers primarily to an ethnic group of people who immigrated from Tibet generations ago). It’s a family affair, with Sherpa’s wife, Mingma, and two sons helping out at both restaurants. Mingma now works full time at the Sonoma Grille, making sure every dish is Yelp!-worthy.
So, what’s a sherpa from Nepal doing running a Cal-Ital restaurant in Wine Country? It’s not as surprising as you might think. Nima spent more than a decade working with Italian surveyors on Everest, and got pretty adept at making pasta. Having worked with Cavallo for 14 years, doing everything from cooking to management, he became very familiar with dishes like risotto, raw oysters, fettuccine with prawns and other dishes that are now on Sonoma Grille’s menu. There are no Himalyan or Indian dishes on the menu.
“There was already a Himalyan restaurant in town,” he said (also owned by Sherpas). “I didn’t want to compete,” he said. But seafood was another story.
“No one really had a great seafood place,” he said. Sherpa created a menu that’s both approachable and wildly diverse, with everything from salmon ($24), lobster ($34) and BBQ oysters )$18) to rigatoni ($23, vegetarian), filet mignon ($30), rack of lamb ($27) and beef carpaccio ($12). With massive plates of food, no one’s walking away from the table hungry, here, and Nima sees to that personally.
“Everything has to be perfect,” he said. “Eat, eat!”
Best bets include:
– Surf and Turf ($37): I haven’t ordered this decadent steak and lobster dish since I was in college (and that’s a really long time ago). It always just seems so, well, decadent. But sometimes you gotta stray from the usual, and this well-priced version is worth the detour. Grilled filet and a half Maine lobster with garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe. A small ramekin of clarified butter takes the whole dish way over the top, but that’s what we’re going for here, right?
– Seared Tuna Salad ($15): Seared, rare ahi tuna with cucumbers, grapefruit, avocado and tomato on roasted red pepper sauce. Rather than the usual poke-style pile, the tuna takes center stage, and the refreshing produce makes for a snappy salad.
– Lobster Risotto ($24): Lemme just say that I usually frown on lobster, because we have such great crab here, and it seems silly to fly in seafood from Maine. That said, without crab this season, lobster has become a regular fixture on menus to satisfy those of us jonesing for a little crustacean. Long-simmered arborio rice with Maine lobster and porcini mushrooms. The richness gets a bump with mascarpone cheese and lobster sauce for a dish you won’t want to share (but feel free, because it’s more than one human should eat).
– Seafood Linguine ($21): Shell-abrate this Neptune’s feast of shellfish in garlic chili Chardonnay sauce. It’s way better than my pun.
– Fresh Oysters ($18 for sampler platter): As tentative oyster fans, we won’t pretend to know your Blue Point from our Royal Miyagi, which is why the sampler platter that also includes Drakes Bay and Steam Boat oysters on a bed of ice and seaweed is the way to go. With cocktail sauce and mignonette, there are more than a dozen ways to nosh these briny delicacies.
– Saffron fettucine ($19): This dish is Nima’s favorite, made with wide saffron pasta, tiger prawns, arugula and sun dried tomatoes with lobster sauce.
Sonoma Grille, 165 W. Napa St., Sonoma. Open daily for dinner from 5-9:30p.m.; happy hour from 3-5p.m.. sonomagrilleandbar.com.