Globe North Dining Out

Indian surprises in Davis Square

June 21, 2009
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Namaskar Fine Indian Cuisine
234 Elm St., Somerville
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.; Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. - 11 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped

In the restaurant wonderland of Davis Square, Namaskar Fine Indian Cuisine defies stereotypes. It’s not the cheap college hangout (Mike’s) or the sophisticate (Gargoyle’s on the Square) or the brassy newcomer (Boston Burger Company). It’s not even the splashiest Indian restaurant - Diva, up the block, with its bubble lounge and Indian tapas, gets more hype.

Namaskar often seems sparsely populated even when other nearby dining rooms are overflowing, but the restaurant has been quietly serving Indian food for six years. Namaskar has all the familiar Indian dishes, usually from the northern part of the country: curries and biryanis and kormas and masalas. But the restaurant also has some intriguing offerings from the southern and western parts of India. The lengthy menu is full of unusual dishes like uttapam - south Indian pancakes made of rice and lentils - and thali, a range of vegetarian dishes from Gujarati.

Namaskar is sandwiched along Elm Street beside Anna’s Taqueria, and the dining room is small and sleek. The wooden floors gleam and the walls are painted soothing shades of green and purple. Blue pendant lights hang over small tables. In the back of the restaurant, a cook works inside a glass-walled room.

We’ve had dosa - Indian crepes - at other restaurants, but Namaskar’s are fried until they’re crispy. The paneer dosai ($14) wrapped crepes were made of lentils and rice around a gently spiced filling of potatoes and excellent homemade cheese. Here the paneer is soft and fresh. The humble-sounding pav bhaji ($13), a Mumbai specialty of “mashed fresh vegetables,’’ was another favorite. Potatoes and other vegetables were mashed together and served with a curry sauce and “rudy rolls’’ - a soft, buttery bread.

The chicken zafran ($15.49), cooked in a sauce with saffron and fruit, was a tender, gently spicy dish. Although the heat level on all of our dishes was mild, spice aficionados praise Namaskar for being willing to turn up the heat.

There were some duds. An appetizer called vada sambar ($8), one of the South Indian dishes, entranced us with its exotic description: “savory doughnuts, deep fried with delicate spices and soaked in sambar.’’ But the reality was bland: oblong pucks of rice, yes, deep-fried, but nearly tasteless. The accompanying sambar - a stew similar to dal - helped only a little.

Blandness is not a problem for the fiery boss naan ($5) packed with chilis, garlic, and potatoes, whose name came from the moniker employees gave the owner.

Namaskar offers a host of dessert options. The kulfi badam pista ($5), billed as “extremely rich, due to the large quantities of milk, almonds, and pistachios,’’ wasn’t quite as decadent as suggested.

Our favorite was the ginger ice cream ($4), although the saffron-pistachio ice cream ($4) was an unusual combination of sweet and savory tastes. The preschoolers at our table were diligent consumers of mango lassis ($4.29), though the drinks were less sweet than other versions we’ve had.

Namaskar’s prices, not among the cheapest for Indian food, sometimes draw complaints. Many of the entrees hover in the mid-teens and some of the special dinners - like the $47 Romeo-Juliet dinner for two, a combination of meat dishes, appetizers, drinks, and dessert - are pricey. But there’s a recession-friendly way to eat here for less: The unlimited food of the lunch buffet - $9 on weekdays, $12 on weekends - is a bargain.