Since the closing of Tabaq 74, there have been few to no options for decent Indian food in Jackson Heights. Jackson Diner? Delhi Palace? Ashoka? Well, let's just say it's not your fault if you have eaten at one of these places. . .just once! With their homogeneously-spiced, ghee-soaked, MSG-poisoned "cuisine," the restaurants of Little India seem to thrive through hype, not actual quality.
But, lo! There is salvation. The newly-opened SAJNA, located on Broadway between 72nd and 73rd (south side of the street across from Shaheen), is a Second Coming for Indian food in Queens. Housed in an airy, handsome space that offers lively second floor views of street life in the Heights, SAJNA serves a buffet lunch ($7) and a la carte dinner; soon, a first floor bar serving alcohol and snacks will open. The menu was designed by Naeem Chaudhary, an earnest and ambitious chef with 30 years of experience and culinary training from India.
It's not clear to me why the all-you-can-eat buffet is the chief medium for Indian cuisine, but since it is, I'll start there as Sajna's buffet is exceptional. The buffet table held five complementary main dishes: lamb curry, chicken jalfrezi, palak paneer, channas, matar: plus chaat, pakoras, chicken tikka, salad, rice, and kheer. A basket of roti (naan, paratha, or chapati) is delivered piping hot to the table.
What might seem like a limited choice, especially the lack of grilled meats, is truly a blessing. (Note: the selection of buffet dishes is rotated day-to-day, even the dessert.) Each dish was its own unique experience: different spice palate, vividly fresh ingredients, low fat, and absolutely no MSG. For example, the dal was a richly cooked puree of lentils; the channas, soaked in tea leaves and cooked to a perfect point between kacha and pakka; and the palak paneer, a righteous exercise in restrained elegance (the American version of Punjab's signature dish of Punjab is usually cooked beyond recognition, in an odd imitation of the way the British cook their vegetables).
To test the kitchen's full range, we ordered half a tandoori chicken ($10.95). No delayed disappointment here. The thoroughly marinated bird arrived at our table smartly sizzling in its own juices and adorned with a crown of roasted onions and peppers.
Two more relevant notes: the service was professional; absent was the usual insincere bowing and scraping. And it's 24 hours later and no gastrointestinal issues!
Chef Chaudhary runs his kitchen with a philosophy, not a balance sheet. It's not the most adventurous form of Indian food (curious? try TAMARIND!), but it's a very honest rendition of Northern Indian cuisine, the kind of memories-of-home food you might find at the KWALITY restaurants of India.
For that, I hope you will support Chef Chaudhary and SAJNA, who have elevated the standards for Indian food in Little India. With the opening of the bar and other initiatives (live music, paratha brunch, fresh fried jalebis), SAJNA will hopefully become a culinary and community fixture.
Happy Eating--and do post news of your SAJNA dining experience!