BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
If you’re secretly self-loathing like most law students, you probably want your upcoming Valentine’s Day dinner to be a hostile French affair, where the waiters give you disparaging Socratic interrogations about wine you can’t afford and throw pieces of overcooked meat at you. Those whose lust for prestigious eating overcomes their masochism, however, would do well to sit on an embroidered cushion at one of Diva’s swanky, dimly-lit banquettes and enjoy trendy yet reasonably-priced Indian food.
As far as dining hipness goes, the four-year-old Diva is nothing too cutting edge; two swanky Indian restaurants in London now have the coveted Michelin stars traditionally awarded to non-ethnic bastions of opulence, and Tabla in New York has found exceeding popularity with less traditional fare, but the trend is just starting to spread to smaller cities, and it is a pleasant surprise indeed in Somerville. One meal at Diva started with a complimentary amuse bouche of warm cauliflower soup in a shot glass; this sort of thing is pretty fashionable at Greenwich Village restaurants that run you $100 per person, but unusual here. No amuse bouche was forthcoming on my most recent visit, but the food still had a nontraditional feel. Vegetable samosas ($3.75) jacket a fresh mash of peas and potatoes with a crispy batter that had barely a touch of oil; the two samosas are served on a rhombus-shaped plate with artfully-place dollops of too-sweet xacuti sauce and a very fresh mint chutney. Entrees come with a taste of strongly-flavored pickled vegetables – an unusual thing to find in a Boston Indian restaurant – and a perfectly Euclidean mound of rice.
Despite the creative plating, however, Diva’s food is pretty traditional. The waiters always ask about spice level, and if you order something “hot,” you’ll live to regret it, this suggests that the chef isn’t aware that he’s cooking for novice American palates, despite the virtually all-white clientele. Departures from the normal Indian menu aren’t the tandoori crabcakes you might expect from the decor. The bhindi massala kadahi ($12.95), okra lightly wok-fried with ginger and onions, is an excellent way to taste fresh okra, particularly if your only okra experience is through its common layer of extreme breading. Even the chicken tikka masala ($12.95), an invention of the British that usually features chicken in a pinkish broth of pure cream, has an unusually smoky and intense tomato component to its sauce.
The Royal Dinner for Two, or its lonelier, sadder cousin, the Special Dinner for One, is the sort of giddily inexpensive prix fixe you’ll only find at a place like this because no one wants to pay that much for ethnic food. For $36.95 for two people, the Royal Dinner sports a ridiculous array of lentil soup, lofty and airy naan, samosas, chicken tikka with grilled lamb and moist, tender ground lamb kebab, two entrees, coffee and dessert. The seafood entrees are a tempting way to maximize the Royal Dinner’s value, and the shrimp are plumper and fresher than usual, but Diva’s strengths lie more with vegetarian dishes like the aforementioned okra or the saag paneer ($11.95). The homemade cheese that swims in the spinach of the latter dish is just soft and sour enough. Diva’s main weakness, is its slightly downward trend: the horror of iceberg lettuce has started to pop up as an accompaniment to the samosas, and the desserts are inconsistent. One recent dish of gulab jamun, fried, doughy balls soaked in syrup, was hard and dry in the center. This ruined the ball-gobbling delight they usually provide.
All in all, Diva’s pretentious decor and authentic food make it a great date place, and it’s usually filled with couples. If you want to signal to a prospective mate that you are Open to Trying Strange, Spicy Things and Willing to Travel the Subcontinent, you won’t do better.
Diva246 Elm St.Davis SquareSomerville617-629-4963