Annapurna

Unusual pan-Himalayan cuisine in the heart of Cambridge
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  October 2, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

Annapurna has no liquor license, though they’re working on getting one. Chai ($3) is caffeinated and leaner than at Starbucks, fine and bracing as the nights get colder.

For dessert, kulfi ($4) is a kind of ice cream or sherbet. Annapurna makes it “plain” (the default is usually cardamom), mango, and mint. Unfortunately, they were out of plain, so we had mango, which was more concentrated, slightly icier, and denser than American-style mango sherbet. Kheer ($4) is rice pudding, here with some cardamom and less rice than many other versions. The surprise was gulab jamun ($4), in Indian restaurants usually rather plain, over-sweetened doughnut holes. This, however, was redolent of mint and cardamom. I don’t identify baklava ($4) with any Himalayan country, but the dessert we were given at Annapurna is a very different-looking baklava, with all the butter and chopped pistachio in the middle of a round, flaky pastry. The holdover Afghan dessert is kaddo ($4), baked winter squash with yogurt-mint sauce. My guess would be that the winter squash in Afghanistan are sweeter than this early butternut, but I might be wrong.

Service is an important plus at Annapurna. For one thing, lapses were a problem at both previous restaurants that occupied this space. We also need encouragement with an unfamiliar cuisine, and our servers were quick, helpful, and knew the menu well. The room is small but gets some character from pictures of Nepal and Tibetan-style paper lamps. Despite crowded tables (14 in about half a storefront) and a lot of window glass, it doesn’t get too loud. One can usually hear the background music, which I could not identify but sounded like a middlebrow combination of Indian and Arabic vocals.

Crucially, Annapurna revives a tradition of inexpensive, exotic ethnic restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. Portions are modest, as a cup of curried meat is supposed to go with a lot of rice or naan. The high-quality rice and naan served at Annapurna reinforce that kind of eating. If you’re still hungry after a long day of climbing up and down mountains, order some extra appetizers.

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

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