From his roots in Kathmandu, Nepal, to boys’ school in India and to Birmingham, Alabama, where he cut his teeth in the restaurant industry while in college, this die-hard foodie had a dream to open a restaurant. And through sheer perseverance, his magnetic personality and, of course, his passion for food, he won the hearts and bellies of Birminghamians and made it happen.
Journey to the Kitchen
“I went to an all-boys’ Jesuit school in India, where it was very disciplined and strict, but we broke all the rules,” laughs Abhishek “Abhi” Sainju, executive chef and owner of Abhi Eatery + Bar at The Summit and MO:MO at the Pizitz Food Hall. “But once a month, they allowed us to go to town and stay in a hostel, and we’d go eat food everywhere. For example, dumplings there are just like hamburgers here — everybody sells it. So, so we’d go try dumplings from one place, and then go back to the other and say, ‘Hey man, your dumplings aren’t good. We’re not coming back. That guy’s are better.’ And he would upgrade his stuff, and that’s how I became a foodie! Anywhere I go, the first thing I do is food.” He also credits his love of food to his vegetarian mother’s uber-healthy home cooking from his childhood in Kathmandu.
As Abhi laughs at his boyhood exploits, it’s not hard to imagine him as a mischievous and fun-loving youngster. He admits that his first love was rock and roll. As a boy in India, he taught himself guitar in a day so that he could have accompaniment to compete in and win the title of “Best Western Vocalist,” a prize they created for him, because he was the only solo act. He seems to still have this almost childlike exuberance, a curious palate and a rule-breaking imagination that keeps his outlook bright and his mind full of new and ever-improving recipe ideas.
“When I came to America for school in 1996, I missed all the food. The Birmingham food scene back in ’96 was either bad Chinese food or too expensive, like Highlands or Bottega, and I couldn’t afford that. I was in school,” says Abhi. “So, I started making all my meals myself — cooking, cooking, cooking. It became my hobby and my passion.”
Chasing His Dream
Throughout school and for a while after, Abhi bartended at Surin West, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in management information systems. “Honestly, I did that for my parents. I was like, ‘Alright, so here you go. Now, let me do my thing.’ I wanted to open a restaurant,” he says. “I’d been in the restaurant industry for 12 years, and I know how to cook and I know how to do everything. So if experience counts, this is the experience I have and this is what I love to do. So, that’s when I decided I was going to open a restaurant, but I didn’t have money. So, I was like, keep the money issue aside, and just keep doing what you love.”
Despite important logistical obstacles like money and staffing, Abhi kept envisioning his dream eatery and working towards it. He knew he wanted a restaurant that combined all of his favorite Asian flavors, dishes from Nepal, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and more. “Hiring a sushi chef was too expensive, like $60K to $80K,” says Abhi. “So, I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll teach myself!’” He had a friend who was moving and had a sushi stall at Target. In three days, Abhi learned the technical details of sushi-making, and he bought the stall. His friends thought he had gone crazy. “I didn’t buy the thing just to have business. I knew this was my opportunity to learn. I just practiced the technique, and once I had that down, I was like, ‘Alright. This is how it works!’,” he says. He lights up, and you can almost see the culinary wheels turning. “And then, I knew I needed a little crunch in there, some fruits; I need a little creaminess — the flavors were already in my head,” Abhi waxes rhapsodic about the art of sushi. “I look at sushi in a different way. You’ve got to balance everything.”
As the stall’s year contract — along with Abhi’s self-inflicted sushi apprenticeship — ended, he was already tackling the next steps in his culinary journey: how to test the market with his sushi. “Everything fell into place,” he says. He was a one-man show and sushi didn’t require a kitchen with a hood, so he’d bring sushi to the people. “Right now, in the bar industry, you have to have food, because people drink and get hungry and leave,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Hey, if I can provide food for the bars in town, their drinks will go up.’”
That’s when Everest Sushi — and its cult following — was born. “I would start at 5 p.m., and sometimes I’d be 10 minutes late, because of traffic, and people would be there and be angry, because they had to wait on me. And I was like, ‘Really?! It’s just the second week!’ It made me feel like I was on the right track.”
Abhi’s Culinary Philosophy
Abhi dives deep when it comes to food, even studying the historical origins of dishes and the science of flavor. He regales us with a detailed history of rendang, a popular Indonesian curry that originated among spice traders along the ancient Silk Road. “That helps me create the true flavor,” he says. “I’m not just copying someone else’s recipe. You have to know the real meaning of ‘why.’ I always ask, ‘Why? Why does this taste good? How do I bring the umami?’” says Abhi, who had to look up umami, an elusive savory element that is essentially flavor-making magic. “I started studying all of the foods that have natural umami, and I’m like, ‘That’s it! That is why it tastes better! I’m using all the foods that have umami.’”
He’s on a constant quest for food perfection. “Each dish doesn’t just happen. Sometimes it takes months, years,” he says, explaining that the recipe for his momos — the extremely popular Nepalese dumplings and the namesake for his stall at the Pizitz Food Hall — took him nearly 10 years to perfect. He even goes so far as to have a custom-made blend of spices made from a spice shop in Kathmandu that creates spices using the ancient methods.
“I build my food for women, because they can understand and pay attention to all the little details. Guys are like, ‘whatever,’ and they will just eat it, but I focus on women, how they think,” says Abhi. “I learned that from my mom and my wife, how to cater towards that. Because if the women are going to come, then the men are going to come, but I’ll have something for them too.”
Abhi Eatery + Bar, A Dream Come True
“This was a godsend,” says Abhi of his new restaurant, Abhi Eatery + Bar at The Summit. “Bayer Properties are the ones who gave me the opportunity down at the Piztiz Food Hall, and then they offered me the opportunity here, and I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll take it!’”
Abhi, who created the menu at Bamboo on 2nd, faced immense pressure from his cult following to include certain Abhi-created favorites. “When I started planning the menu, I had friends say, ‘You better have the momos!’ and ‘You better have the tempura-fried green beans and the lumpia! I’m not driving out there if you don’t!’” So Abhi decided to use his original menu from Bamboo as a base, adding a few new things and working in new dishes over time.
The old favorites include the signature momos, Nepalese dumplings stuffed with ground turkey, vegetables and spices, steamed and served in an Alabama tomato vinaigrette-infused broth; lumpia, a crispy Filipino egg roll with turkey, carrots, celery, water chestnuts and a house sweet sauce; KFC (Kathmandu Fried Chicken) lollipops; thukpa, a warming Tibetan-style noodle soup; the tako salad of steamed octopus, cucumber, mint, green onions, ginger, tomato, peanuts, cilantro and sesame-ginger vinaigrette; a variety of umami-rich grilled skewers with mouthwatering dipping sauces; and, of course, the sushi.
And Abhi, whose ramen made it to this list of “5 Restaurants That Have the Best Ramen in the World,” claims to have improved the ramen at Abhi Eatery + Bar. The aromatic ramen bowl includes authentic wheat ramen noodles in a rich, house-made pork broth with shiitake and tree ear mushrooms and a perfectly soft-boiled egg, topped with vibrant cilantro and green onions, fresh bean sprouts and crisp carrot strands. Diners can choose to anchor this flavorful bowl with beef, chicken, tofu, shrimp, pork shoulder or pork belly, and add Sriracha and other fixings for added heat or spice, making each bite a personalized tasting experience.
The new spicy salads feature grilled beef, pork, chicken or salmon and include mixed greens, onions, tomato, cilantro, scallions, Thai basil, cucumber and a house honey citrus dressing, served with hydroponic lettuce leaves, so that you can create lettuce wraps, if desired. Another addition to menu are the curries and braises, such as the Wagyu beef rendang and the local veggie medley. But the star of the show is the Nepalese lamb curry. There is even a network of local doctors who keep telling Abhi that another doctor told them about it, so they had to come try it. Most, of course, return for more.
And there are more additions in the works. Abhi is planning poke bowls, ginger-scallion noodles and an out-of-this-world turkey burger, using his custom blend of Nepalese spices that he’s been testing for over a year. Besides the Nepalese spices, Abhi sources his ingredients from local farmers, such as the Urban Food project, Owl’s Hollow and the Southern Foothills Farm, where he gets his Shiitake mushrooms. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Japanese Shiitake mushrooms grown in Alabama — I was like, ‘Wow!’”
The bartender of 12 years also wanted those locally grown veggies, like Shiitake mushrooms and Thai basil, incorporated into the craft cocktails. He enlisted the help of renowned local bartender Steven Bradford, of The Marble Ring and Fancy’s on 5th fame, to execute his vision. “He nailed it,” says Abhi. The Level Up cocktail, for instance, incorporates Martell VSOP Cognac with Shiitake mushroom-rosemary syrup and El Guapo Love Potion #9 syrup for a taste you can’t get anywhere else.
“I just love the energy here. We have a great, young crew. It’s a good team. It feels like family, and everyone leaves happy. I want people to come here and enjoy the patio and nice weather, relax, have the highest standard of sushi and food. It’s the great food and great attitude that brings people together,” says Abhi with a satiated smile.
“Things are going to happen here,” he adds. And, given his signature optimism and the determination of a rockstar set on topping the charts, we believe him.
Abhi Eatery + Bar is located at 300 Summit Blvd., Birmingham, AL 35243. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with future plans to open for lunch Monday through Thursday. Learn more at abhiatthesummit.com or call (205) 969-6858.
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