It’s been five years since Jackson Diner moved from its cramped original location to spacious new digs further down 74th Street. Unfortunately, the new space was disconcertingly modernistic, much of the friendly staff departed, and the food a pale shadow of its former self. Annual checks have shown little improvement, although I’ve always found the lunch buffet a good deal, on the supposition that, out of a dozen dishes, two or three are bound to be good.
Like bible-thumpers yearning for the Second Coming, aficionados of the old diner have been waiting for a new and wonderful Indian restaurant to appear in Jackson Heights. Named after the swampy coastal metropolis founded by the Portuguese five centuries ago, Bombay Harbour just might be that restaurant. It occupies the space Student Biryani recently flunked out of, featuring a steam-table café at street level and a formal dining room on the second floor with a panoramic view spanning Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway—a quintessential Queens corner. The 7 train rolls by every five minutes or so, resounding through the room like a drumroll.
The menu is typical of Queens’ Sikh-owned restaurants, emphasizing such northern fare as curried lamb and chicken, tandooris, biryanis, and Mughal-style vegetable presentations. As is customary, appetizers are mainly fried and forgettable. One exception is the double-size samosa chat ($4.75), a pair of potato-stuffed quadrahedral empanadas heaped with chickpeas, yogurt, onions, cilantro, and multiple chutneys. Though it looks like a big mess, this Bombay beach snack tastes stupendous.
But the menu goes beyond typical northern fare, exploring the Ibero-Indian food associated with Goa, the former Portuguese colony south of Bombay. Typical is the excruciatingly good chicken xacuti (pronounced “shakootie,” $8.95)—tidbits of poultry in a toasted-coconut gravy laced with black mustard seeds and curry leaves, packing a chile wallop that may remind you that globe-trotting Portuguese explorers first introduced hot peppers to India. The Goan standard vindaloo is offered in chicken, lamb, and goat versions, though not, alas, in its original pork form. No Indian restaurant in town has dared to serve it, though Bombay Harbour’s recent T-bone tandoori special suggests the cooks are experimenting with beef. Goodbye, Hindu customers.
The menu also forays into several south Indian cooking styles. Though chicken chettinad ($8.95) is described as a specialty of Madras, it really originated with the Chettinars, one of the few non-vegetarian groups in the south. Their cooking has become notorious in the north for its awesome hotness, achieved at Bombay Harbour through the use of both chiles and crushed black peppercorns, producing a lingering spectrum of burn. It was just this sort of oddball dish that kept me and my friends returning to the restaurant long after we’d concluded that northern standards like palak paneer, tandoori fish, and lamb saag are better by several degrees than the versions found at other Jackson Heights eateries, with a ginger-and-garlic pungency that recalls the early days of Jackson Diner.
But it wasn’t until the last visit that we discovered the dish the proprietors are proudest of. Dhaka Hazi’s biryani ($8.95) is named after the capital of Bangladesh, and features tender morsels of baby goat in a tumble of spice-studded rice slicked with mustard oil. According to our waiter, it duplicates a recipe associated with a Dhaka legend named Hazi, who turned out 800 servings of his famous goat biryani every day at lunch for a throng of admirers. It’s so good, I began to suspect Hazi himself was working in the kitchen.