Imagine for a moment a trio of silky lamb chops just yanked smoking-hot from the tandoori oven, deeply brown on the outside, but still a faint juicy pink in the middle. Now deposit them in a cream sauce laced with such spices as coriander, cinnamon, clove, cumin, and fenugreek, rendering the gravy dark and fragrant. Finally, fling a handful of crushed almonds into the swamp—making lamb pasanda ($9.99), one of the richest and tastiest dishes ever to grace a stainless-steel salver in a South Asian restaurant.
With a name meaning “golden” in Bengali, Sonali Cuisine is the latest small dining establishment to arrive on the Sunnyside stretch of Queens Boulevard, which has gradually developed into one of the city’s best food neighborhoods. It’s also the most recent Bangladeshi café to hit west-central Queens, following in the footsteps of Spicy Mina and Deshi. I’m pleased to report that Sonali is less quirky and cantankerous than the former, and less obsessed with mustard oil than the latter. (Although the intemperate use of mustard oil isn’t such a bad thing, I guess.) The Sonali premises may be tiny—just a couple of unadorned tables, a counter, and a door leading into the kitchen—but the flavors are big, big, big.
Other unspeakably rich dishes include chicken shri mangal ($7.99)—bone-in bird pieces deposited in a sauce seething with coconut milk, raisins, almonds, cashews, and chunks of canned pineapple. The pineapple sounds nasty, right? Well, in this context, it functions mainly as a sweetener; not only are the fruit chunks blessedly few in number, they taste more like strangely textured turnips once cooking is completed. Also tops in the richness category is “butter chicken.” Known elsewhere as murgh makhani, it was invented during the 18th-century Mughal Empire, or during the modern era at a Delhi restaurant called Moti Mahal, depending on whom you believe. Either way, the recipe features almonds, cream, gobs of butter, and puréed tomatoes, giving the sauce a distinctive orange coloration. Sonali Cuisine is just the sort of place to give nightmares to nutritionists (and the lactose-intolerant).
Bengalis are especially fond of okra, a vegetable that originated in West Africa but became popular throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The mucilaginous material inside the pod turns into a thickener for several selections on Sonali’s menu, including a spectacular version of the Mughal standard bindi masala. Despite its meaty-looking sauce, the dish is entirely vegetarian, as our waitress assured us. A surprising fave at our table one evening—as we watched the 7 train zoom by overhead, ablaze with light—was lamb okra curry ($7.99). We wondered: How do they sling such large portions at such low prices? All the meat is halal, too, which is an added expense.
The breads totally rock at Sonali, all freshly made, mostly in the tandoori oven. Aloo paratha ($2.50) is as good as any I’ve ever tasted, two thin flatbread layers with a pleasantly lumpy potato filling that oozes as you bite into it, heavily herbed with green onions and cilantro. While the garlic naan is a bit dry, the onion kulcha is moist with the fresh bulb, leading one pal to quip, with a nod of the head to Dorothy Parker: “You can lead an onion to kulcha, but you can’t make it think!”
Among the dishes introduced into the subcontinent by the Muslim Mughal rulers, none was as highly prized as the festive rice dish biryani, and Sonali’s menu features several variations. It won’t surprise you that bony goat ($7.99) is my favorite, a heap of Himalayan proportions sewn with cashews, yellow raisins, and cilantro. It’s been cooked in so much broth that the rice has turned brown, and every twentieth grain has been colored with saffron. Or maybe it’s orange food coloring.
Bengalis have a thing for the freshwater fish that swim in their lakes and rivers, fed by the same waters that cause all the floods. They’ve also developed a distribution scheme for getting their favorite fish here in dried and frozen form, and the piscine roster at Sonali includes several that may be unfamiliar to many New Yorkers. One goes by the rave-up name of ruhu. Also known by the biological name of Labeo rohita, the flesh is bony, dense, and rose-colored, so you might think it’s salmon at first bite. The thick, brown sauce actually complements the delicious fish, but share it with several friends, because the flavor is intense. But don’t stop at ruhu—Sonali also serves ayer, pomplate, and boal. Which would make a dandy name for a law firm, wouldn’t it?
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at villagevoice.com/forkintheroad