Dominated by all-you-can-eat buffets and halal-kebab joints, the Indian-restaurant scene in Jackson Heights was moribund for a decade. Then Delhi Heights appeared. Located a samosa’s throw from the massive aboveground subway station, the new restaurant’s over-the-top glitz was immediately apparent, causing commuters to stop and gawk in astonishment at the spaceship-size chandeliers, undulant orange banquettes, and Spam-colored granite bar that actually serves cocktails, making the place more like Vegas than Varanasi. Clad in white shirts and black ties, the waiters float among the diners like ghosts of Indian restaurants past.
The prices are likely to provoke sticker shock among those who associate Jackson Heights with cheap eats. Chicken entrées list at $12.95, lamb at $14.95, and seafood at $17.95, for the usual brass boat of brown gravy. Yet every evening around nine, Delhi Heights floods with dating couples and extended families who seem unfazed by the prices. The menu parses into three sections: South Indian, Indian, and Indian-Chinese. As expected, the South Indian menu is an empty gesture, aimed at vegetarians who need a drink. While the “hot chilli uthappam” ($6.95) proves commendably moist and spicy and the doughnuts (“vada”) are crusty and creamy, the all-important dosas are tough, and the idlies as hard as the urinal cakes they outwardly resemble.
Delhi Heights remains just another Punjabi joint at heart, though the Indian menu adds favorites from other regions, out-and-out inventions, and Punjabi stuff you won’t find elsewhere. Lamb vindaloo seeks out its roots in the former Portuguese colony of Goa by reintroducing red wine to the recipe, resulting in an odd but not unpleasing flavor. Name-checking a cultural group all but vanished from southern India, Chettinad chicken lounges in a pale-beige gravy shot with curry leaves and black mustard seeds. Methi machli bathes fish fillet in yogurt and fresh fenugreek, typical of Bengali cooking.
Yes, there are plenty of tandoori selections, which arrive sizzling on cast-iron platters. Made from moist ground lamb, seekh kebabs ($15.95) are especially fine, fashioned into five batons coated with red-tinted yogurt. The spectacular barrah kebab is made from steam-rollered swatches of lamb that have been tenderized in a lively marinade. The Indian menu also features 18 flatbreads, many cooked in the tandoor, including a buttery and crumbly jalebi paratha ($3.95).
Other unusual dishes commend themselves: Gol gappey ($4.95) is the happy-go-lucky Punjabi nickname for brittle pastry globes into which one is supposed to spoon a chick-pea curry, then pour in sour tamarind water. (Try to get them to your mouth before the liquid leaks.) On a menu that boasts dozens of vegetarian entrées, pindi channa ($11.95) is one of the most interesting, a garbanzo collection coated with a pungent spice rub attributed to Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It’s not your usual chick peas in bland red sauce. Finally, there’s sakuti chicken, a dish of poultry pieces in yogurt-laced tomato sauce that tastes a bit like Campbell’s soup. The recipe is described as “south India,” an assertion I found both unconvincing and un-Google-able.
But as you lean back after the very good Indian meal and have the chance to look at the surrounding tables, you’ll discover that most are piled with Indian-Chinese dishes. This recently invented cuisine reconfigures Chinese food for Indian tastes by increasing the ginger, garlic, chilies, and sugar and avoiding powdered spices. The result is sometimes a little too candy-like. Every little Indian place in the five boroughs now features “chili chicken” and “drums of heaven” (an Indian-Chinese variation on Buffalo wings).
Delhi Heights turns out to be the best advocate for Indian-Chinese in town, utilizing the usual five sauces and adding some authentic Chinese stir-fries. The menu offers a transcendent cauliflower Manchurian—a “dry” curry annealed with a powerful sweet coating. Eggplant in “Szechwan” sauce ($12.95) is the real article, like something you’d get from a good neighborhood carry-out, only with a more luxuriant use of oil and fresh ginger. There are fried rices and fried lo meins in abundance, including a version of hakka noodles perfect in its nuanced Cantonese mildness.
A new surprise awaits you with every visit. Ordering the old Pakistani favorite of keema mutter, we found the spicy ground-lamb mixture dotted with deshelled sweet peas rather than the freezer-burned specimens that ruin most evocations in the neighborhood. As my friends and I happily spooned up the last morsel, noting the presence of a new Tibetan momo shop across the street, someone exclaimed: “Now I have a reason to visit Jackson Heights again.”