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Quantity undercuts quality at Martsa On Elm

Restaurant Review | 3 out of 5 stars

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 12:02


Melissa MacEwen / The Tufts Daily

Melissa MacEwen / The Tufts Daily Martsa On Elm’s low prices and friendly atmosphere compensate for food that can be a bit so-so, like the Pan Fried Tofu with Peas in Coconut Curry.

Though it may not be widely known, Somerville has a relatively large Tibetan population. With over 500 Tibetans calling the suburb home, it should come as no surprise that Somerville also features some of the best Tibetan food in the Boston Metro Area. With Yak and Yeti, House of Tibet Kitchen, Rangzen Tibetan Place and Martsa On Elm all within walking distance of Tufts University, there are plenty of Himalayan eateries to choose from. But, while Martsa On Elm is popular in the Somerville restaurant scene because of its proximity to the heart of Davis Square, it remains a bit of a mixed bag.

On first impression, Martsa’s best feature—its extensive menu—is also its worst. Even choosing an appetizer can be daunting, but simplicity is often a reliable choice, and the Spicy Potato Bread appetizer did not disappoint. Though not particularly exciting — the bread was sort of a fluffy, buttery pita pocket filled with peppered potato — the appetizer was deliciously fresh and seemed like it would pair well with a sauce-based entree.

Picking an entree was also challenging and took much longer. Vegetarian and chicken specialties each get a page on Martsa’s menu, with lamb and beef specialties’ nearly full pages each not far behind. The Pan Fried Tofu with Peas in Coconut Curry turned out to be a tasty, but entirely unexciting dish. While Martsa deserves credit for keeping the tofu light and airy, the dish had none of the coconut-based sauciness of a typical Indian curry — which is what the entree seemed to be imitating. The coconut complemented the peas pleasantly, though the “curry” was flavorless and a tad greasy overall. Finally, the dish’s absence of sauce made the spicy potato bread side dish/appetizer rather superfluous.

Still, this entree stumble likely reflects a rule of thumb that seems to apply at Martsa — that, unsurprisingly, the more authentic Tibetan dishes are tastier. For example, Martsa’s Daysil, a dessert composed of sweet saffron rice, nuts and dried fruit is simple and delicious.

As nice as it is to have such an expansive menu, it seems that Martsa’s sheer quantity bogs down some of its quality. Perhaps Martsa’s chefs spread their nets too wide in an attempt to offer customers dishes they might be a bit more familiar with — such as curries — but paring down the menu to Tibetan classics would make the restaurant more authentic while likely giving the cooks a smaller number of dishes to perfect.

While it can be tempting to overlook the negative aspects of family-run eateries in the interest of giving non-corporate restaurants credit where it’s due, Martsa does have a few other specific flaws that should be addressed. For one, the television.

While a television makes sense in a location like a sports bar, it really has no place at a sit down restaurant. However subtly, the TV set draws the attention of all patrons facing in its direction, and it can be distracting. The muted television also clashes bizarrely with the more setting-appropriate music that the restaurant plays and the Tibetan decorations lining the walls.

Secondly, and more importantly, Martsa’s service is very hit or miss (as has become clear through this reviewer’s three recent meals there). While the servers are universally friendly and accommodating when they interact with customers, the restaurant consistently seems to give better service to large groups. Either that, or the small kitchen is easily overwhelmed whenever a large group sits down to eat. It’s perfectly acceptable to wait ten or fifteen minutes for an entree; it’s really not okay to have to wait upwards of forty minutes for food just because a table of ten has taken over. It is commendable that Martsa does such an admirable job of accommodating large parties, but doing so should not come at the cost of other diners’ experiences.

Still, Martsa is an overall great place for students, families and couples looking for a night out in Davis, given its location and reasonably priced meals. The aforementioned appetizer, entree and dessert came to just over $18, not including tip. It’s also open late — until 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. So while the food might not be top notch and service might be a bit iffy, the restaurant will likely remain a local mainstay. It speaks volumes that even on an arbitrary Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m., Martsa was more than half full.

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