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Annapurna – cooking, enlightened (lengthy review + pics)

BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 10:11 AM

Being a recent transplant from Toronto, Canada, I felt a need to explore my new neighbourhood in order to discover all the best that Somerville/Cambridge has to offer. One day back in May, I wandered past this little corner restaurant called Annapurna. It was an unassuming place with barely a soul dining inside. However, I was highly intrigued by the menu and the description of the spices and herbs which were very foreign to me. I had never had food from the Himalayas, so this Nepalese food was quite an eye-opening treat.

On our first visit, we decided to stick with some standard dishes (such as naan and curries), while adding a few additional signature plates (chicken momos). After placing our order with the affable owner, a platter of chutneys and pappadum arrived. The chutneys were so incredibly fresh tasting. The cilantro one was my favourite, but each one was very unique. They weren’t cloyingly sweet, like most versions of the tamarind chutneys I’ve had (the most recent being Diva’s version at Davis Square). The pappadum were also very light and crisp. Excellent texturally, and they went fabulously with the delicious chutneys. What an amuse(-bouche) to get the saliva glands going!

Pappadum/Chutney photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3720105837

When the food arrived, I was immediately intoxicated by the aromas of the spices and herbs. They were very foreign, but oh-so-pleasing to my nose. We dug into the chicken momos first. They are simple steamed dumplings filled with a delicious blend of ground chicken, cilantro and Himalayan herbs. It was light and subtly sweet and unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. Recently I had a version by the nearby Kathmandu Spice and I would have to say that KS’s version tasted like a frozen gyoza compared to the exotic spices being used in Annapurna’s version. It was like night and day. The version by Annapurna had a light yogurt accompaniment, which added a nice hint of sourness to the dish as well.

Chicken Momos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948839964

We’ve tried a number of their other appetizers as well. Their strongest dishes (IMO of course) are their Momos and their delicious Samosas. I have only tried their vegetarian version of the samosa, but it is the best version I have ever had. I have eaten my way through many samosas (in and around Toronto – both homemade and restaurant versions, and in London) and this is my favourite by far. Their pastry dough is what makes this unique and special: Their version is lightly fried and quite thin and flaky. It is unlike many versions that are cheap and rely on previously made wonton wrappers. The filling itself is fluffy and full of flavour from the herbs and spices used. When bit into, it puffs and your mouth is filled with this delicate aroma of spices and the silky texture of the potatoes just nestles against your tongue. An amazing experience. Other appetizers we’ve tried include the Aushak, Mantwo, and the scallion bowlani. The Aushak and Mantwo are both quite unique mainly in their flavouring. The spices are what really make their dishes, but I would have to say that I was not a huge fan of either dish. I felt it was a bit smothered in their yogurt sauce, which made it a bit too sour for my liking. The scallion bowlani also suffered from the fate of the over saucing, but the texture of the pancake was fantastic because it was well pan-fried. The scallion bowlani reminds me of a more delicate version of the Chinese scallion pancake, but rolled up and then topped with a generous heaping of yogurt. The scallions inside are quite moist, fresh and fragrant; much more substantial than in a Chinese scallion pancake where it plays a more backseat role to the pastry. I like all their appetizers thus far, but I would have to say that the momo and the samosa stand out the most.

Aushak photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3720918062/
Mantwo Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948056985
Veggie Samosa: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948106237
Inside Samosa: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948889504/
Scallion Bowlani: photo to upload shortly

Next on the table came the naans. I have never in my life had such amazing naans. The flavour of the hot pottery oven that is used (tandoor) to make the naans in comes out very strongly in their naans. They are thinly done, and not tough and doughy like so many restaurants make them out there. This version is light and crisp on the back side and not oily in the least. We have had the plain version, the garlic, the onion and the potato naans. We love them all. Their plain naan is solid every time and goes well with each curry because it doesn’t overpower with other flavours. The garlic is very aromatic and since I enjoy garlic with everything, I welcome their generous sprinkling across the top face of the naan. The onion naan is at times made with green onion, and at other times with a lovely red onion/shallot that is very mild in flavour, but sweet. It’s very subtle and I enjoy it thoroughly. The potato naan is like a plain naan, but stuffed with softly mashed potatoes. It’s quite substantial and provides an interesting texture contrast when eating it alone, or as an accompaniment to the curries. I love the flavour of their delicate naans and would highly recommend them. They are consistent each time and I have yet to find any version that comes even close. That is what I love about Annapurna; they take pride in everything they prepare and serve. Their naans are delicate and flavourful and even their rice is amazing. I absolutely love the quality of the rice they serve with their curries. It is fluffly, yet firm on the outside. Each rice is a separate kernel, not clumpy and soggy/dry like so many other restaurants’ versions. The aroma from the rice is also intoxicating, indicating they use a very high-quality, fragrant rice. It’s such subtle detail like this (and the fact that they top each rice bowl with a dainty fresh green pea) that make our dining experiences at Annapurna so satisfying.

Naan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3720918074/
Inside Naan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948889624
Plain Naan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948840140

The mains arrived just after the naan. I will describe a bit of each of the dishes I’ve had the pleasure of sampling (we’ve eaten here steadily since I first found out about them in May – about 8 visits so far):

• Saag Paneer – this has got to be my favourite dish here. SO (Significant Other) was not as big a fan because I think they like their meat a bit more than I do. The spinach was just wilted ever so slightly so that it maintained its integrity in texture and in flavour. This was a huge leap in improvement over past versions I’ve tried. The rest all tend to overcook this delicate green to the point where you barely recognized it was once a vegetable, and then proceed to pulverize it in the blender. All chefs should take note! This is how it should be done.
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948889538
• Terai Chicken/Beef/Lamb Curry – this is one of my favourite meat curries there. It has a strong essence of coconut, which is always welcome IMO. The added texture of the coconut shavings really improves the curry. It is very aromatic and sweet. The meat inside is a bit tough for my liking (as with most curries), but the flavour of the curry itself more than makes up for any shortfalls of the meat due to my pickiness. I highly recommend this dish. (Edit: Went back yesterday night and the coconut flavour was not as heightened as I would have liked. I hope I can get them to up the coconut flavour on my next visit).
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948056811
• Goat Biryani – this one the SO and I agree on is one of our favourite dishes there. Their rice is done to perfection. It’s light and completely separated (read: not clumpy like most places). Their rice is something that I can see they take pride in. Even as an accompaniment to the curries, their rice is amazing and of stellar quality. It is loose and full of flavour. I could eat a bowl of this on its own, and I don’t usually even like rice. Their biryani is their rice, but taken to a whole new level. The spices used are unlike Biryani’s from other countries. They use Himalayan spices and herbs, which taste unlike anything else I’ve ever sampled. It is fragrant and it permeates into the core of the rice itself. The goat is tender and full of flavour as well. It comes with the bone-in (in the most recent versions), so it makes for an interesting challenge to it, but it’s worth it when you sink your teeth into the succulent meat.
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3720105909/
• Aloo Gobi Mutter – I can’t decide if this is my favourite dish there, or the Goat Biryani, or the Saag Paneer (but it’s certainly close). The flavours with this dish are unlike any of the heavier meat-based curries. The vegetables themselves have been handled quite well, and are crisp and just lightly cooked. The peas are sweet, as are the cauliflower. The potatoes are also not too starchy, and are instead waxy, which I enjoy since they stand up to the curry quite nicely. This is an excellent dish that I would highly recommend. They beat any other version I’ve tried – hands down!
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3963194958/
• Chicken Tikka Masala – Outstanding. What can I say? They can’t get anything wrong here. The flavours are so much more complex than any other version I’ve tasted in North America. I would say that it beats many of the curries I’ve tasted in London in terms of complexity as well (true, the spicing is different, but I enjoy the subtle nuances in the flavours here – you taste something, then a split second layer, a second layer of flavour comes out…). Once again, I find the meat tough, but the curries are amazing and so far, I haven’t tasted anything that comes close.
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948840028
• Lamb Karahi: As you can probably sense, we love our lamb. This version was very nice and the curry unlike any of the others. What stood out was their fresh use of peppers in the dish. The onions and peppers were exceptionally sweet and were excellent as a foil to the more fiery curry.
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3962419659

I was so very impressed with their curries and how everything tasted so incredibly different that I once asked Chef about it. He told me that he arrived each morning to the restaurant at 7AM to grind each one of the up to 20 different herbs and spices that would go into each one of his UNIQUE curries. That’s right folks, 20 different spices. He said that some of the recipes require only one or two granules of a spice, and he counts those out as well to include in his meticulously crafted curries. To those places that take one curry base and just add a spice here and there – you should take note!

• Beef Masala – great again of course. The beef base is richer, IMO, than the chicken version. In the chicken, I find the tomato flavour comes out more strongly. The spicing is different for each, of course, to compliment and showcase the main ingredient.
o Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3948840060
• Dwopiaza & Sabzi Challow– We tried the Afghani menu one evening and I would have to say that my palate prefers the Himalayan side of the menu. I found the spicing just not to my liking. The preparation methods we tried also focused on the tandoor, so I found that the meat was overly dry for my liking, without the curry to mask this fault. But to each their own; you might like it!
o Sabzi Challow: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/3815957598/
o Dwopiaza photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

We’ve gone so many times, and each time has been of high quality. Consistency is not lacking at this fine little establishment! The owner is very, very kind and polite and he strives to make every customer happy. On our last visit, he seemed so harried, running out of the kitchen near the end of service, but he still ran around to each table asking how everyone liked the food (everyone loved it of course). He then proceeded to swig down a root beer and then ran back into the kitchen for another round of tables. His business has picked up immensely since our first visit. I guess word gets around that such a gem of a restaurant is in Cambridge! I hope that they continue to thrive and that I will have many more satisfying meals at Annapurna. The only thing I’ve really noticed is that their prices have increased slightly since I first started coming (NO!!! Please lower them again so I can come more often!), and they seemed to drop a few of the freebies (the pappadum and the free lentil soup). Maybe our last visit was just an ‘off’ day and they were a bit rushed and forgot the freebies, but the food quality was just as good (which is the important thing) – EDIT: We just went last night and the freebies have been restored. I can’t wait for my next visit already, now that I’ve finished typing this up. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. This is truly enlightened cooking and I hope they always stay so affordable and fantastic. I can't wait to discover what else Boston has to offer in terms of delicious food, but so far, I think I'm off to a good start.

Cheers and Happy Eating!

BokChoi

Annapurna Restaurant
2088 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02140
(617) 876-8664
annapurna2088.com

  1. b
    bobot Sep 28, 2009 11:25 AM

    Thanks for the writeup! I've been meaning to try this place for ages now and will have to give it a go soon.

    1 Reply
    1. re: bobot
      BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:03 PM

      You're welcome bobot! I hope you like it there. I find they take great pride in what they do - everything is done a la minute / small batches. I really appreciate that, because the textures (especially in the vegetables) really shine in the dish.

    2. justbeingpolite Sep 28, 2009 11:47 AM

      Wow!!
      Welcome to Boston. Toronto's loss seems to be our gain. What a write-up, and beautiful food porn pics. I have been wanting to try one of the Napalese joints in the area. This may be the one.

      Thanks, and welcome

      1 Reply
      1. re: justbeingpolite
        BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:05 PM

        Thanks for the welcome justbeingpolite. I've been trying quite a number of places since I arrived in the spring. Since I was just settling in, I did not have a chance yet to write them all up. There is just so much good food in Boston. I can't wait to give them all a try! Any suggestions in the Somerville/Cambridge area are always welcome as well. I am happy the food porn photos help as well! I find that they really help you decide if a restaurant is worth trying out.

      2. c
        CookieLee Sep 28, 2009 11:58 AM

        I went last yr after reading a review in the Phoenix. I haven't had a chance to go back. I'll have to get over there again.

        1 Reply
        1. re: CookieLee
          BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:06 PM

          Do report back when you give them a try. If you love vegetarian curries, I highly recommend their Aloo Gobi Mutter; always stellar, as is there naan!

        2. greenzebra Sep 28, 2009 11:59 AM

          Great report, and welcome to Boston and the neighborhood. I walk past Annapurna all the time on my way home from work but have not had the opportunity to try it yet -- I am now moving it to the top of my list.

          There are two Tibetan restaurants in the Davis Square area you might be interested in, both with a slightly different take: Martsa on Elm (Davis Square), and House of Tibet Kitchen (Teele Square). I like them both quite a bit. I'm not an expert on Tibetan food, but my understanding is that Martsa on Elm is more Tibetan-in-exile (Tibetan food with Indian influences), and House of Tibet Kitchen is more traditional Tibetan (they have yak on the menu, which is actually quite good IMO).

          3 Replies
          1. re: greenzebra
            BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:07 PM

            Thanks for the suggestions on Martsa and House of Tibet Kitchen. I have been eyeing those two restaurants for the past little while, ever since stumbling upon Annapurna. I just find that every time I want Nepalese, or even to go out that matter, I can't walk past Annapurna without ducking in for a great meal. Any suggestions on dishes to try at either or those two other places? I want to try Yak, but I have a sneaking suspicion it will just taste like lean beef. Either way, I'll probably still give it a try. Everything at least once right?

            1. re: BokChoi
              greenzebra Sep 28, 2009 01:19 PM

              At House of Tibet Kitchen I'd recommend the thantuk especially (a soup with flat noodles, veggies or meat, cilantro and other seasonings, described on their menu as a "traditional winter meal"). The yak does taste a bit like very lean grass-fed beef -- kind of like buffalo but juicer and more tender. At least the way it was cooked at House of Tibet Kitchen, the leanness didn't make it dry or tough.

              1. re: greenzebra
                BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:50 PM

                The soup sounds absolutely delicious. Especially considering the weather in the coming months! I look forward to enjoying their yak and will report back. Thanks for the suggestions greenzebra.

          2. StriperGuy Sep 28, 2009 12:03 PM

            Heck while you are on a Himalayan role try Kathmandu Spice (Nepali) in Arlington, just a bit further up Mass. Ave. Awesome food.

            7 Replies
            1. re: StriperGuy
              BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:09 PM

              Hi StriperGuy,

              I gave Kathmandu Spice a try a few weeks back and was not as impressed as I was with Annapurna (by far). Perhaps I tried the wrong dishes. I'll have to load up my photos again to remember what I ordered... Any suggestions for my return visit if I make one? I find a lot of restaurants always have 'strong' dishes - and if you don't order right, then you could miss out on a real gem. Thanks in advance.

              1. re: BokChoi
                StriperGuy Sep 28, 2009 01:32 PM

                Wow, really. I think KS is one of the better ethnic restaurants in Boston period. Much more complex, subtle, and nuanced than say Martsa which I like very much, but is definitely on the homey side..

                Try their buffet some time. Or heck, try either their assorted Nepali plates (veg or meat) or try either the assorted veg or meat app plate, dinner in itself.

                Make me want to give Annapurna a whirl.

                1. re: StriperGuy
                  BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 01:55 PM

                  I think I probably would have been very impressed with KS if I had not already tried Annapurna several times before my venture out to KS, to be honest! I really enjoyed the fried soya bean amuses at the beginning of the meal, as well as the lentil dish (lentil Bukhara) I ordered. But I felt that something was lacking in the spicing of the dish. I really wanted to enjoy the tangy eggplant, but just thought it was too tangy. Guess it wasn't my cup of tea - the frying of the eggplant was quite excellent though! The friends tried the Dal, Bhat, Tarkari Meal and it looked really nice. I will give that a try next time - is that the Nepali plates you were mentioning? Thanks for the suggestions StriperGuy.

                  1. re: BokChoi
                    StriperGuy Sep 28, 2009 02:08 PM

                    I think so, hard to remember, been a little while.

                    1. re: StriperGuy
                      BokChoi Sep 28, 2009 02:26 PM

                      Thanks for the response. Do give Annapurna a try. I would not recommend their Himalayan Bojan though, unfortunately. I ordered it once, and would have to say their strength lies in their a la carte dishes. The okra was fine, but nothing out of the ordinary. The salad that accompanied it was uninspired. It was 'good value', but definitely does not show what they can do. This would be the equivalent of the Dal, Bhat, Tarkari Combo meal at KS.

                      Good luck and do report back when you give them a try!

                      Bojan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

                      1. re: BokChoi
                        Prav Sep 28, 2009 07:09 PM

                        By the way, FANTASTIC Flickr stream... You really know how to work your Nikon. :) I can't wait to peruse more at work.

                        1. re: Prav
                          BokChoi Sep 29, 2009 04:46 AM

                          Thanks Prav. I really appreciate the praise! Though I tend to annoy some dining companions a bit when I head out to eat, I'm hoping the chowhounds out there will appreciate the food reports. It's great to hear its appreciated. I've got about a month of photos backlogged on the computer with some more food reviews to follow (including a couple of more shots of Annapurna). It's been quite the whirlwind since I arrived in Boston. It's fantastic that there's so much good food to eat within walking distance of my new place. Thanks again.

            2. o
              oniontears Sep 28, 2009 03:36 PM

              Fantastic review! I also recently tried Annapurna for the first time last week and was blown away. It's really a stand out in the area and quite an unassuming place.

              Even their veggie momos rose above the usual cabbage/carrot blandness, and I can't even begin to describe the complex, spicy, fresh sauce that accompanied it. So many of the apps are a mere $5 a pop, including a more homey version of Helmand's kaddo.

              I'm definitely going back for the biryani. I wanted chicken last time, but chose the lamb boti kebab (from the Afghani menu) since the chicken was NOT on the bone. What is the point of biryani when the meat is boneless? Also I was hoping it would come with some raita.

              The lamb boti looks very plain but was fantastically seasoned and tender with a great pile of soft, subtley flavored pallow rice. The side of eggplant was a milder version of the Punjabi baigan bharta.

              Great naan...fluffier than the Indian version, but with the signature crisp bottom. Great, attentive service and a cute little spot.

              Keep us updated on other little gems.

              1 Reply
              1. re: oniontears
                BokChoi Sep 29, 2009 04:44 AM

                Thanks for the review! My version of the biryani did indeed come with the raita. I find that sometimes when they are busy, they forget some of the items. Next time I think I'll just follow up and ask for anything missing.

                Thanks for the reminder of the kaddo. I've heard great things about Helmand's kaddo from my SO, so I ordered Annapurna's version. I would have preferred it to be cooked a bit longer in the oven in order to make it more tender and sweeter, but it wasn't bad for the $5 they charged. I'm not sure I'd order it again though. I think I'll try a few of their other desserts. I'm usually too full by the end of the meal to get dessert, but next time I'll make room!

                Kaddo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

                I'll definitely be posting some of my other favourite places in and around Davis Square. Thanks for your kind comments.

              2. digga Sep 28, 2009 05:04 PM

                It's shameful we haven't tried Annapurna since we've traveled to and eaten well in both Nepal and Tibet. Disappointed to hear about the bhojan, but that won't discourage me from trying their version, as it was one of my favorite things to try throughout Nepal. If they have thukpa, I will definitely give that a try (as someone else posts below, House of Tibet's is tasty, too, although it's been a while since I've been there).

                Thanks for the lovely reminder.

                1 Reply
                1. re: digga
                  BokChoi Sep 29, 2009 04:48 AM

                  digga,
                  I'm sure my disliking of the bhojan has nothing to do with the quality of their version (they do everything else so well). It probably just has to do with my taste preferences. Do give it a try and report back. I'll have to get on trying the thukpa at House of Tibet as well. I'll report back once I've given it a try. Thanks again.

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