By Suzanne Parker
When Indian restaurants first started popping up around Queens, they were mostly intended to serve the borough's growing South Asian population, unlike their Manhattan counterparts, which catered to a more mainstream sensibility. We were ecstatic to have easy access to authentic Indian cuisine so close to home. As time went on, we could find not only Indian restaurants, but restaurants specializing in various regional cuisines of the subcontinent.
We have been able to indulge in the pleasures of (and learn to distinguish between) the tandoori specialties of Northern India and Pakistan; the aquatic delights of Bangladesh; the fiery spices and vegetarian dishes of the South; and the Chinese Indian fusion known as Tangra-style, for the neighborhood in Calcutta from whence it sprung, to name only a few. It has been a culinary education that has taught us not only to distinguish between regional cuisines, but to recognize lovingly prepared, home-style cooking, where each spice sings its own individual note, as distinct from curries made from mass-produced batches of sauce.
The downside of all this exposure to this wonderful cuisine is that familiarity breeds contempt. The thrill is, if not gone, a little less thrilling. So when we happened upon Seva in Astoria, a new Indian restaurant clearly not pitched only to the desis (the Hindi expression for homies), we appreciated it for its originality. As they say on their Web site, “Age-old recipes are loved by all but with evolving palates we believe that Indian food should evolve as well and offer surprising flavors.” With this guiding principle, Seva has introduced something new to the Indian cuisine scene — not fusion, just a little broadening of horizons.
Even their décor conveys the message that something a little new and different is going on here. They eschew the usual mass-produced Indian art or travel posters of the Taj Mahal in favor of simple gathered panels of brightly colored, diaphanous fabrics and a stylish graphic of a tree that adorns their printed materials as well. While ethnic tchotchkes are not without their charms, this understated ambiance conveys a message of stylishness and modernity.
The starters are a combination of the familiar and the inventive. You can order a sampler platter that includes some of each: a veggie samosa, a chicken samosa, pakora and a lamb spring roll. Their veggie samosa, this most fundamental of Indian snack foods, is a standout. The potato and other vegetables in the filling retain their texture while melding their flavors with the spicing, and the pastry is crisp and seemingly greaseless.
The lamb spring roll was the most unique item among the apps. Finely ground spiced lamb with a few peas was wrapped in a spring roll, lightly breaded and fried. It was seductively spiced and substantial. If ordered alone, you get a pair of them which, if combined with another appetizer, would work nicely as a light meal. Masala crab cakes closely resembled regular crab cakes, but with Indian spices. Both the crab cakes and spring rolls come with yogurt raita and green chutney.
Seva's mulligatawny soup, a preparation that seems to mean something different in almost every place we've tried it, is thick with pureed lentils and robustly spiced. Butternut squash soup is sweet and scented with nutmeg and cloves.
Three entrees caught our eye for their inventiveness: apricot lamb, Parsi shrimp curry and baghare baigan (baby eggplant in sesame-tamarind sauce). The apricot lamb offered up hefty chunks of lamb in a sweetish, medium-hot curry sauce with no discernible apricot. Parsi shrimp curry's defining ingredients are tamarind, garlic and cilantro, also yielding a slightly sweet result. The eggplant dish also relied on tamarind for its character, which could account for a resemblance to the flavor of the shrimp dish. The miniature eggplants were scored at the bottom and served whole in the sauce with a peppering of sesame seeds.
Desserts were the usual Indian offerings of rice (kheer) or milk (rasmalai) puddings or gulab jamun (a syrup-drenched fritter). Although no alcohol is served here, the beverages included a few surprises along with the usual lassis, such as mint lemonade and unsweetened spiced iced tea (with free refills).
The Bottom Line
Seva offers a refreshing new take on Indian fare, and attracts a clientele as multi-cultural as Astoria itself. The offerings include not only vegetarian, but many vegan options, something not so easy to find. The prices are modest and service is friendly and on the ball. We applaud Seva's innovative approach to Indian cuisine.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger's restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America's Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].
30-07 34th St.
Astoria, NY 11103
Setting: Small, modestly stylish
Hours: Lunch & dinner daily
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: Acceptable
Handicap Accessible: No. Restroom downstairs.
A SAMPLE FROM THE MENU
Mixed appetizer platter … $5
Vegetable samosa … $3
Lamb spring roll … $3
Masala crab cake … $5
Mulligatawny soup … $3
Apricot lamb … $10
Parsi shrimp curry … $11
Baghare baigan … $8