BY GEOFF MCGOVERN
Cambridge and Somerville have a surfeit of Indian restaurants. Most popular are the buffets that abound in Harvard Square, feeding the lunch crowd of grazing undergrads and doctoral students. Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of buffets. Someone before me always takes the last of the tandoori chicken, the spices are always toned downed to a least common denominator of heat, and I am deathly afraid of large vats of kheer (limpid rice pudding with cardamom). So, I tend to avoid buffets at all cost in favor of the regular service where the kitchen can display its prowess on a more intimate scale. Of these Indian kitchens, the best is found at Diva Indian Bistro, in Davis Square.
Painted an appetizing shade of yellow, with funky chandeliers and tables aplenty dotted with cobalt water glasses, Diva’s dining room combines chic and casual, rounded out by a rounded free-form bar. Serving the collegiate crowd in Somerville, this upscale Indian gem offers delicious food and a good value.
Diva has been my favorite Indian restaurant in the area since my first visit about a year ago. At the time, I was won over by an astounding nightly special of Malai Kofta Korma ($14.95), a dish of vegetarian balls slowly cooked with cashews, raisins, and a creamy tomato sauce. With warm Naan flatbread and a liter of Taj Majal beer from West Bengal, I was as happy as I had even been at the dining table. My brave companion tried the Lamb Vindaloo ($12.95), at her request prepared extra spicy. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take the heat, though she made a valiant effort with the help of my Taj Mahal.
On my last visit, my editor spotted the “Dinners for One or Two,” four combination specials allowing diners to sample a variety of starters, entrees, accompaniments, and breads, finished off with a choice of dessert and tea or coffee. If you’re hungry, there is no better option: the variety included in the special is sure to leave you sated (and may even leave you with leftovers). I chose the Diva Vegetarian Thali ($14.95). The first course was a delicious Mulligatawny soup, made with well spiced but not overpowering lentils, served with a wedge of lemon. I will forever be amazed at the power of lemon: a mere sprits freshened up the already succulent soup and revealed the layers of flavor in the aromatic stew.
I had hardly eaten my way through half of the Mulligatawny when the Samosas arrived–crispy fried pockets of potato, green peas, and mild spices that were as good as any I have tasted (although I wish Diva served a bit more tamarind sauce than the artistic swirl that decorated the plate). My dinner came with a choice of two entrees; I returned to my standard Malai Kofta (not Korma this time) and Dal Makhni (sautéed black lentils with coriander). Both were excellent, and served with rice, yogurt sauce, and perfectly puffed Poori (deep fried whole wheat bread).
My editor ordered the Diva Special Dinner for One, which came with the same delicious soup and Samosa, a sizzling piece of Tandoori Chicken, Seekh Kabob (grilled marinated lamb), a choice of any entrée (full size), rice, and Naan. The Chicken Tikka Masala my editor ordered was superb but too spicy for his tastes.
Diva has full bar service. I chose a wonderfully crisp Indian Chenin Blanc. Non-alcoholic options include delicious traditional Lassis, made from yogurt and your choice of mango or rosewater.
The service at Diva can be a bit slow on busy Friday nights. But the opportunity to graze through a leisurely meal is anything but a negative.
Alright, I admit Diva also offers a buffet. I have never tried it. But if they manage to create a meal half as good as the regular menu, I just may become one with the crowd.
Diva Indian Bistro246 Elm StreetDavis Square(617) 629-4963http://www.divabistro.com