Impressive and AuthenticBy Scott Lee
246 Elm Street
Somerville, MA 02144
You should be wary any time a restaurant is named Indian Bistro. It’s like a Korean trattoria or a Swedish taqueria coming to town. You just don’t know what you might be getting into. My Punjabi friends nonetheless hyped the place as the first real Indian restaurant in Boston. That’s some serious hype, so I decided to make a visit, in spite of a sketchy name that is reminiscent of a fusion cuisine that never seems to work.
Diva opened in March of 2000 by two local proprietors familiar with the local Indian food scene. They hired Sandra Fairbank, a restaurant architect, to create a space that would break the mold of traditional Indian fare. The high vaulted ceilings and the use of vivid primary colors give a life and persona to the restaurant atypical of most Indian restaurants in the area. There are no traditional Ramayana or Krishna motifs representing traditional Indian art, so prevalent in these restaurants. Instead, a glass-encased room showcases the bread-baking facilities for all to watch. Post-modern furniture in a Mies van der Rohe style permeates the space.
The mid-day brunch consisted of 8 main dishes, salad, naan (Indian bread), and some dessert -- an all-you-can-eat buffet. The shrimp jalfrazi was well prepared. Spiced with the right balance of cumin, coriander, and pepper, it was addictive and I found myself going up for seconds and thirds. The chicken tandoori was equally impressive. I could actually taste the red clay seeping from the orifices of the tender meat, meaning that it was not rushed. So often in many Indian kitchens, after microwaving the chicken, some red food coloring is painted to give the appearance of a tandoor-cooked chicken. The samosas and pakoras, battered and fried Indian appetizers, left a little to be desired. They had a bit more batter than filling (vegetables and meat). The fried batter with whole fennel seeds was tasty nonetheless, but out of proportion.
All of the bread was freshly made to order. My naan came straight from the tandoor oven, wafting puffs of ebullient garlic and coriander scents to the masses of envious onlookers in the booths ahead of us.
The other dishes were equally impressive and authentic. The pav bhaji had the appropriate mixture of spices and vegetables to make us think we had been transplanted to the shores of Bombay. The South Indian fare in general was overall very good. Dosas, fried doughy pancakes, were made to order and had the right crispiness and soft inner filling. The uttapam, a thick pancake with rice, was utterly delicious, and the lentils, tomatoes, and fresh coriander left us stuffed.
Dessert was eaten in spite of the fact that we were full. The kheer did not disappoint. A cold rice pudding, it was mild, with just the right texture. Its only fault was that it was not spiced enough, but one could argue that that is a matter of personal taste.
The service was good. The Globe had stated that service was atrocious in their review. I, however, found the restaurant staff bending over backwards to ensure that we were happy. I guess they read that review, but I still had to ask for water two or three times.
Overall, an outstanding value. The restaurant is packed day in and day out for good reason. Brunch is a true steal, especially if you skip breakfast. The hype is real.