Davis Square ethnic restaurant serves up hearty, exotic fare
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Diva Indian Bistro
True to its name, Diva is chic, animated, and worthy of some attention. A restaurant easily accessible to Tufts students, Diva Indian Bistro has a snug corner spot on Elm Street in Davis Square. The façade facing the street is inviting in saturated red and purple hues, providing a sense of warmth and fun that continues as you step inside. Walls are painted vibrant yellow and a high ceiling is adorned with unique lighting fixtures, some colorful and others encompassed by neatly hanging fabric. The dining room has bar seating off to the side and in back center, a tandoor kitchen visible through glass where you can watch as a baker performs the magic of preparing naan.
In the adjacent room is Diva’s lounge, a narrow space with a long bar and small table seating along the walls, which are covered in translucent tiles of vibrant blues and oranges, providing a sort of mod-Euro feel. Back in the dining room, booths come with small, relaxing pillows. Over the course of the meal it becomes apparent that both the ambiance and the food blend trendy with casual to create a place that could please most any fashion or palate.
The menu features typical Indian restaurant faire, but is quite extensive. Offerings include options from the tandoor, a regional menu section highlighting dosa- the Indian version of crepes, curry dishes for carnivores and vegetarians, and of course a complete list of Indian breads.
With a slew of options on the menu, the waiter first brought over a complimentary hot cup of spicy vegetable soup, a warming welcome that was very satisfying, yet slightly challenging for the heat-sensitive mouths at the table.
Fortunately a tall glass of mango lassi, perfectly sweet refreshment in this case, was ordered and brought over swiftly. A glass of soda, however, is rather small and does come with free refills.
For appetizers, there are traditional vegetable samosas ($3.75), which arrived pillowy yet not overstuffed with potato, as a good blend of peas were included and a little kick of spices, too. Two dipping sauce choices, a tamarind chutney and a mildly mint chutney, were a delicious accompaniment. The lentil and vegetable mulligatawny soup ($3.75), was flavorful and spicy, while not as strikingly overpowering as the free tasting earlier in the meal.
Watching the baking process is only half the enjoyment of the Indian breads offered. The traditional white-flour naan ($2.95) and especially tandoori roti ($2.95), naan’s whole wheat counterpart, were gently topped with melted butter and outstandingly tasty. Poori ($2.95), deep-fried whole-wheat bread, arrived as a big, spherical puff on the plate. Despite an intriguing appearance, it disappointingly tasted like paper-thin fried dough. More filling bread selections come stuffed with vegetables or meats.
For entrées, the chicken tikka masala ($12.95) was a solid, satisfying version of the popular dish. Tandoori chicken dalwala ($12.95), served with black lentils and exotic spices, included lusciously tender meat soaked in rich, hearty lentil sauce. A cauliflower and potato dish, aloo gobhi ($11.95), came packed with fresh chunks of flawlessly cooked and simmered vegetables. The baingan bharta ($11.95), eggplant cooked over an open flame, then mashed and sautéed with onions and spices. This was a favorite dish, smooth and savory in a light sauce, though on one occasion distractingly over-spiced though requested mild. Accompanied by a side of basmati rice, each entrée is cooked according to spice preference of mild, medium, or hot.
For dessert, the Indian rice-pudding, kheer ($2.95) is delicately flavored with pistachios and cardamom. Punjabi Kulfi ($3.50), an unexpected form of ice cream, was particularly scrumptious. Not very easy to eat, the kulfi is extraordinarily solid- in fact, upon seeing the kulfi precisely divided into triangular prisms, we weren’t sure this was the ice cream we had ordered. But we were glad of the server’s reassurance; the kulfi’s exotic saffron and almond flavors were worth all the spoon slipping and struggles. Both desserts are great ways to cool off a mouth overcome by spices during the main course.
At dinner, the menu choices that must be recommended are the chef’s specials, especially if you arrive hungry. Among them, the vegetarian thali ($15.95), which for only $4 more than a single vegetarian entrée, comes with a vegetable samosa, a full cup of vegetable soup, choice of two vegetarian entrees, raita (cooling yogurt), rice, poori (which can be substituted for naan or roti), coffee or tea, and choice of dessert. The thali is certainly the best deal in the house. On one visit, the tea or coffee option was even substituted with a mango lassi. A meat version, a Diva special dinner for one ($18.95), will leave you plenty full or with plenty of leftovers and again for only $4 more than one meat-based entrée item. “Royal dinner specials for two” ($28.95 or $35.95) are reasonably priced considering all the courses that are included.
Aside from the specials, prices are generally a few dollars more expensive than ideal, though each dish provides a generous a portion. At lunchtime, prices can be lower and a lunch buffet is also available.
The waiters were sufficiently attentive and accommodated all requests, but were not exactly friendly. Wait staff also nicely fulfilled the critical grading criterion for all restaurants specializing in spicy foods: the frequency of water refills.
The bright ambiance and above-average presentation give the expected cuisine a fresh look. Not surprisingly, the bright atmosphere, extra cushioning in the booths, and not least of all the nourishing comfort of hot Indian cuisine, can have Diva’s diners leaving with a full belly and a cheery mood.
Diva Indian Bistro
248 Elm St., Somerville, MA 02144
– Jenny White