Not your dad's Tibetan food

Email|Print| Text size + By Denise Taylor, Globe correspondent
June 19, 2005

Today's new word is bhagtsamagu. Can you say bhagtsamagu?

If not, at the end of your next meal at Martsa on Elm, just point to it on the menu. The good-as-apple-pie, $2.50 Tibetan dessert you'll receive consists of tender bits of steamed dough decadently sautéed in lots of butter, edges crisp with sugar, and the whole warm fluffy mound topped with crumbles of sweet, soft, home-made farmer's cheese.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This nearly year-old Tibetan eatery in the heart of Davis Square has far more going for it than dessert. That may come as a surprise, since Tibetan cuisine is best known for its creative use of yak products and Himalayan-like heights of blandness. But the difference here is that you won't find this bill of fare back in Lhasa.

Owners Choesang and Dechen Martsa have created a menu that proves that food, like language, is a fluid thing. They offer the best from their homeland, like tasty half-moon-shaped dumplings called momo served with luscious eggplant chutney ($6), and oh-so-comforting amdo tsel ($9.25), a starchy stir-fry of potato and beef seasoned only with cumin and caramelized onion.

Both owners were born and raised in India, like many young Tibetans whose parents fled along with the Dalai Lama from the Chinese in 1959, and the menu wanders through their Indian favorites as well. Dechen's street food of choice growing up was potato chaat ($3.50), which she recreates nicely with pan-fried potatoes tossed in deliciously zingy mint and coriander chutney. Another worthy recipe, bhajis ($3.25), comes straight from the kitchen of a grade-school friend's mother. She taught Dechen how to make these crispy fried strips of battered onion and potato, which are as addictive as french fries.

Dechen inherited a passion for food from her parents, who ran a restaurant for years in Dharamsala. Her father, Tsering Donghsi, now the day chef at Tremont 647, is the man behind 647's popular momo dumplings.

Like all gourmets, Cheosang and Dechen experiment with food, and the menu features many of their flavorful discoveries. One inspired original is curried chicken with potatoes ($9), a spice-cabinet of flavors from cardamom to curry with a sweet-sour edge provided by apples.

Two standouts derive from Indian and Chinese influences. Lady fingers ($9), okra sautéed so expertly it's slimeless, was perfect with a nicely salty mix of cumin and turmeric. Equally good were crunchy string beans ($8.50) pan-fried with gobs of fresh garlic and a splash of soy sauce.

Pricing is sub-shop cheap, and the 11 flavorful soups (about $2.50 a bowl) and the newly launched lunch buffet ($7.50) are particular bargains. The pretty décor, with its orange walls and polished wood tables -- and smiling service -- seem more fit for mid-price dining, however.

Ho-hum dishes did turn up, like the bland pumpkin curry ($8.75) and likewise plain vegetable curry ($9), and dho-bhakleb ($2.50) flat-bread was tough and grainy. Other breads, however, excelled. Fresh-baked Tibetan kokun-bhakleb ($1.25) was a yeasty treat warm from the oven. Tingmo ($1.75) steamed rolls (which in a way recall a good hot pretzel) were particularly light.

Drink choices get interesting. Salted and buttered Tibetan tea ($1.25) is the definition of "an acquired taste." Hot cider with cooking wine ($2.50) was also a little odd, but grew on us (it approximates the flavor of chango, a Tibetan New Year's drink). For a safer choice, try the generous creamy fruit and yogurt lassis ($1.75).

And now for dessert, the coup de grace. The rice pudding ($2.50) is respectable, and the saffron-spiced, nut-and-raisin rice pilaf called daysil ($2.75) is a great alternative for the milk-averse. But you must try the (say it with me) bhagtsamagu.

Sticklers for authenticity will note that the bhagtsamagu strays from the classic recipe, but in this case, flavor trumps tradition. And with the story Choesang told me, who can say what's authentic anymore, anyway?

His father, a yogi lama, had just opened a Tibetan monastery in India. The Martsas visited and found the monk in the kitchen making the same old bland dish that he made every day. So this world-traveled pair taught him a half-dozen of Martsa on Elm's Tibetan-world-fusion entrees, and now he too is serving up these Somerville-born recipes.

That's what I call cuisine coming around full-circle.


Cuisine: Tibetan

Address: 233A Elm St., Somerville

Phone: 617-617-0660

Hours: Tues-Thurs 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.,
Sun noon-10 p.m.
Lunch buffet Tues-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun noon-4 p.m.

Prices: $2.25-$12.25

Comments: LIQUOR No license. BYO allowed.

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