For Tashi Lama, a fresh coat of paint was just the beginning. Last month, when he began renovating his five-year-old restaurant on a busy corner near Cambridge’s Porter Square, the spot was Annapurna, named after a Himalayan mountain range in his native Nepal. But many potential customers, he decided, weren’t making the connection between those famous peaks and the cuisine of his homeland. He updated the sign so now it’s clear that dishes of Nepal and India are on offer, and he renamed the place Third Eye, celebrating higher consciousness.
But this is more than a name change. Lama took charge of the cooking, revamped the menu, and hired Dinesh Pandeya as manager. Three outdoor banners advertise a new daily lunch buffet — friendly competition for the Bangladeshi-Pakistani restaurant on the same side of Mass Ave.
On a quiet weeknight, a server invites us to sit anywhere we’d like (there is only one couple in the place). The dining area is cheerier than before with pendant lighting illuminating bright orange walls. New furniture, we are told, will soon replace chairs and tables that have seen better days.
THIRD EYE RESTAURANT
Half-moons of crispy pappadum arrive with a trio of colorful chutneys. One relish, sporting a vivid red hue, is made with finely chopped onions and chilies. It is head-and-shoulders above the watered-down versions we’ve had at other Indian spots. Then come outstanding momo ($8 for eight), the Nepalese-style dumplings. A vegetarian filling of leeks, cilantro, and cabbage is served with a dipping sauce made with timur, the Nepalese version of Sichuan peppercorn, which leaves a subtle tingle on the tongue.
Bhatmas sadheko ($4) features whole toasted soybeans tossed with chilies, cilantro, onion, and tomato; the crunchy, nutty legumes with fresh vegetables are addictive. Our server says this is a traditional dish made by Newars, one of the ethnic groups of Nepal. Another well-known Nepalese dish is Pokhareli kukhura ($13), bone-in chicken simmered in a sweet turmeric-infused curry, scrumptious over rice. Long-grain basmati is transformed into biriyani ($15), a colorful pilaf that is deliciously moist and flavorful, offered with meat or seafood (we choose goat), dotted with blanched almonds, crispy fried shallots, and cilantro. Cool yogurt raita is served on the side.
This is unusually good food; we wonder why the dining room is barely half-full.
Then on a sunny Sunday, we drop in for the daily lunch buffet ($9.95). Still no customers; we ask for ours to-go. From domed steam trays, we fill containers with good, if standard, tandoori chicken, lemon rice studded with mustard seeds, and a well-made melange of mustard greens, cauliflower, and butternut squash. Dishes change day to day, our server assures us, as she wraps our order of garlic naan — puffy and nicely charred from the tandoor oven.
Third time’s the charm. On a rainy night, neighbors start trickling in. We spy sabzi challow ($15), an Afghani dish, on the menu. One dining companion likens it to spinach saag, the Indian dish, but without the cream. Another says it reminds her of ghormeh sabzi, a Persian specialty of stewed herbs, greens, and meat. Third Eye’s version features fork-tender chunks of lamb in a rustic emerald-hued sauce.
Two Nepalese vegetarian dishes also shine. Aloo tama ra bodi ($12) is a fragrant, satisfying plate of bamboo shoots, butternut squash, and black-eyed peas, dressed in a yellow curry enriched with lemon juice. Jhaneko dal ($11) features silky black lentils, seasoned generously with cumin and jimbu, a dried aromatic grass native to Nepal, fried in clarified butter to release its smoky tea-leaf flavors.
By the time we leave, bags of leftovers in tow, the place has filled with families and couples. Perhaps it simply took some time for folks to catch on. It looks like they have.