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Martsa on Elm
Tibetan cuisine reaches tasty new heights
BY ROBERT NADEAU
Martsa on Elm
Martsa on Elm
617.666.0660
233A Elm Street, Somerville
Open TuesĖThurs, 11 AmĖ10 Pm; Fri & Sat, 11 AmĖ11 Pm; and Sun, NoonĖ10 pm
AE, MC, VI
No liquor
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access

Before Martsa on Elm, I had reviewed three Tibetan restaurants. And Iíd come pretty close to saying that Tibetan culture had developed its spiritual side at the expense of its culinary one. The owners must have figured I was a Chinese agent come to make them miserable in exile. Iíll probably be reborn as a chopping block, but the places Iíd reviewed hadnít measured up to my idea of what Tibetan food ought to be. Hereís a country stuck between China and India, with great religious art and a highly developed culture of Buddhist meditation. Thai restaurants have played those cards well. But the Tibetan restaurants in greater Boston so far have reminded me only that Tibet is a high-altitude country stuck between China and India. Mountain food has to be filling and it has to be warming. It doesnít have to be all that great, because the altitude and cold make everyone really hungry. As you might expect, Martsa has 11 soups. (As you might not expect, given the Buddhist influence, the restaurant also has 11 beef dishes. The Chinese donít eat that much beef, and Indians even more emphatically avoid cow meat. Tibetans in Tibet and India donít eat much beef, either. What they eat is yak meat. Iíve never had yak, but based on how Tibetan cooks approach beef, Iím going to guess that free-range yak is a flavorful red meat.)

But ó you knew there was a "but" coming here, didnít you? ó Martsa, named after its owners, raises the bar. These second-generation Tibetan-American restaurateurs have spiffed up some traditional dishes, added Indian-influenced dishes from their childhoods in the exile center of Dharamsala, India, and even drawn on some Chinese cooking techniques. Theyíve done more Americanizing than simply substituting beef for yak, yet the food still is Tibetan in style, a meat-and-starch cuisine that middle Americans can get to like, if we can just get past names like "rhuichotsay" and "guzarelthuk."

Actually, those are pretty good soups, so donít go past them too quickly. Rhuichotsay ($3.50) is a clear beef broth full of beefy dumplings like smaller, looser Peking ravioli, not to mention peas, tofu, and vegetables. Even heartier is the curried lentil soup ($2.25), with a dry, fenugreek-inflected curry flavor that suits the earthiness of lentils very well.

The canonical Tibetan appetizer is momos, beef dumplings good enough to make the bistro menu at Tremont 647. At Martsa they come in a bamboo steamer ó eight or 10 of them, swirled like little macaroons ó as thick pasta around a good beefy filling, with a fine soy dip.

For main dishes, my favorite was chicken chili ($8.95), which is not the Texan idea of chicken chili at all. Itís a stir-fry of various peppers and onions with pieces of batter-fried chicken, and some hot chili-pepper pieces. Itís like a less goopy and hotter version of General Gauís chicken, a favorite of suburban teenagers. Another really good dish is amdo-tsel ($9.25), cubes of beef with caramelized onions in another curry with a dry aftertaste, altogether remarkably like the beef rendang in Malaysian restaurants.

Among vegetarian dishes, who could resist "Majestic Vegetables with feta cheese" ($8.95)? Certainly not I, and some of the vegetables were in fact majestic: excellent stir-fried beans, asparagus, and cauliflower. The feta cheese is warmed up, too, and therefore less assertive than on, say, a Greek salad. Or you could have the vegetarian chocho ($8), a dish of somewhat greasy noodles with a soy-flavored stir-fry of onions and peppers, as well as carrots and beans. This dish is also made with chicken, beef, or tofu.

With the dishes you will want rice. The basic steamed rice ($2) is beautifully made, super-long-grain basmati, as fine as Persian rice. Among the various breads, kokun-bhakleb ($1.25) is described as a homemade Tibetan-style yeast bread. It has a good crust and arrives very hot, and stays hot for a long time. You can see why Tibetans might like to have a few of these around the table on a cold, windy night.

Martsa has no liquor license and is happily unconcerned about diners bringing their own bottles of wine. This used to be a great way to enjoy really fine wine at a more affordable price, and I can remember a wine-loving colleague who would always quiz me about possible "brown-bagging" places. With all the beef on the menu, your best bet is a rough, young red wine, of which a nearby package store supplied a very decent Argentine malbec. Various Tibetan drinks are available. For a cold night, "hot lime" ($1.25) is like hot water with a lime squeezed in, then sweetened. For a hot day, "lime soda" has the salty-piquant quality of the southeast Asian drinks made from pickled limes. You can try hot buttered tea if you like, but Iím saving it for when I climb Mount Everest and it will be really good.

Martsaís desserts are good even near sea level, however. The pick of the flight is bhagmatsu ($2.50), a loose pudding of dough dumplings in sweetened milk with the flavor of French toast ó comforting at any altitude. Daysil ($2.75) is a milky rice pudding with saffron (not too much) and raisins. Chura momo ($2.25) is a couple dumplings of sweet cheese, again a hearty sweet after a hearty meal.

Service at Martsa is very good, a little jaded about people trying to pronounce the names of dishes, but cheered up by good eaters. The interior of the small storefront has been brightly painted in turquoise and orange, indicating that Howard Johnson must have been Tibetan in some previous life. The colors are bright, but acceptable in context with selected decorative pieces. Some early visitors wondered how a Tibetan restaurant would survive in Davis Square, which has two highly decorated Indian restaurants. The answer is lower prices, fewer spices, and good karma. ^

Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.


Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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