The setting couldn’t be less promising—a strip mall dwarfed by a jumbo Kmart that presents its backside to the street. Hair swept up in a ducktail, a 50-year-old lays a screeching patch right in front of us with his blue muscle car. We wonder if he’s on the lam from Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, a few blocks west. With the acrid smell of burning rubber in our nostrils we enter Santoor, and—noting the restaurant’s unappetizing green walls and bubbling, L-shaped buffet—almost turn around. But one look at the ambitious menu and our interest is piqued.
The pricey goat is given pride of place on the menu, and the goat vindaloo ($13.95) is among the best and hottest I’ve ever tasted. While many versions swamp the meat of this Goan standard with potatoes in a sauce far short of fiery, this version confines itself to big chunks of meat in an almost Mexican medley of chiles and tomatoes, sweet but not too sweet. Forgoing the usual oxalic puree of spinach, the goat palak is another triumph of the curry maker’s art, a slate-gray sauce flecked green, using spinach almost as an herb in a subtle spice mixture. On the vegetarian side of the menu, aloo gobi ($10.95) is another revelation. Though chopped fine, the cauliflower, coated with red chile oil and tossed with peas and potatoes, retains its identity by judicious cooking, It, too, is hotter than you would expect from, say, the Indian steam-table trattorias of Jackson Heights.
Named after a hundred-stringed instrument played with tiny hammers, Santoor recalls Jackson Diner in its heyday. Like its template, the restaurant is owned by Sikhs who have contrived a menu to satisfy diners from several parts of the subcontinent, from the meat-loving curry consumers of the north to the cow-worshiping vegetarians of the south to the continuum of omnivores in between. For South Indians, the list of dosai, iddly, and utthapam is perfectly adequate, though no match for the divine versions at Flushing’s Dosa Hutt. An expanded range of Mughal vegetarian entrées appeals to them, as well.
A couple of the best selections hail from Malabar, the southwestern coastal region that glories in the freshness of its seafood and the pungency of its spices. Foremost is malabar fish curry ($15.95), chunks of firm white fish in a dark brown gravy speckled with black mustard seeds and floating limpid curry leaves that shimmer in the dim light. The coconut-laced gravy is sweet and pungent, the perfect foil for the bland chunks of fish. To go with it, order malabari paratha ($2). Not the usual dull wheat flatbread, it pulls apart into floppy buttery layers, ideal for scooping up chunks of fish or, even better, for dipping in the tons of remaining gravy, which might otherwise go to waste. And the pooris at Santoor are the best in the city.
There are some disappointments. Though the sauce on the shrimp kurma (a nonmenu dish) was creamy and nutty, the body count of medium shrimp was scant. Hoping that the biryanis would match those of Bengali and Paki places in town, where the dish often serves ceremonial purposes with its rich layering of colored rice, meat, nuts, eggs, and dried fruit, we ordered shahjahan biryani. Named after the dude who built the Taj Mahal, it’s described on the menu as “a mixture of choice morsels of lamb, chicken, and shrimp in a saffron rice.” While I won’t dispute that it may have contained saffron, what arrived was a mountain of undifferentiated beige rice, which succeeded only in provoking a yawn. But at least it was very spicy.