Restaurant review: Suvaai, Cambridge

Written for publication in MIT’s The Tech.

Head up Mass Ave from campus and you’ll pass mainstays like Clover and Flour, trendy vegetarian spots like Life Alive and Veggie Galaxy, and the chic eateries surrounding Harvard. But it’s worth your effort to keep going. The best ramen (Sapporo), pho (Pho House), and bagels (Bagelsaurus) this side of the Charles line the quiet stretch between Harvard and Porter squares.

Head on a little further still and you’ll reach Suvaai. It’s an unassuming spot — keep your eyes open for the red lights strung up in the window, guiding you in like an airport runway — but your endeavors will be rewarded with interest. Specializing in South Indian and Sri Lankan dishes, Suvaai offers up sumptuous subcontinental soul food for a price that won’t make your eyes water — even if its punchy curries might.

Don’t let the plastic-wrapped menus and table-tops mislead — this is as far as you’ll find from the impersonal, transactional experience common to busier thoroughfares. Which is a good thing, because the novella-length menu deserves careful, unhurried study. Suvaai would suit solo diners and date nights perfectly well, but I’d recommend going in a larger group and coordinating your order: tackling the dosas, rottis and larger curries will involve some serious teamwork.

So what’s good? Just about everything, as far as I can tell. But across-the-board quality doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try dishes unique to the region, which are harder to find elsewhere. Eschew the noodles and tikka masalas, then, and delve into Sri Lankan specialities like the dosas — deceptively light rice and lentil pancakes enveloping perfectly spiced potatoes and onions — and the app-sized Tamilnadu specialty Gobi 65: weaponized balls of deep-fried cauliflower, with the taste and texture of hot wings, only better, obviously. And don’t forget to ask for a rotti kotthu: mercilessly moreish morsels of torn-up rotti, sautéed with diced vegetables and eggs, served alongside split pea curry.

Some marginalia: I ate with a group of vegetarians, and the absence of meat and fish went completely unnoticed: the vegetarian options are both ubiquitous and a few dollars cheaper than their carnivorous equivalents. (And between the Gobi 65 and the paneer tikka, there are plenty of options that seem meatier than the real thing.) Also, the spice levels here are graded on a very different curve to what you might be used to: their “mild” is most people’s plenty-hot-enough, but they’re happy to adjust the heat of your entire order to suit. Either way, it never hurts to have a lassi on hand, just in case.

Suvaai, then, pulls off a rare trick: introducing you to a distinct, authentic regional cuisine with dishes that are so instantly appealing that you immediately realize that, while you might be trying them for the first time, it most certainly won’t be the last. There’s nothing stealthy or unhealthy going on here — just a faithfully reconstructed, perfectly executed menu in unpretentious surroundings. In short, it’s worth the trek.

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