There’s nothing like eating with people who have been fasting to put you in a celebratory mood. After the sun went down each day of Ramadan, customers started streaming into Gourmet Sweets and Restaurant, a new South Asian place in Jackson Heights, eager to break their 13-hour fasts with the iftar meal. The eatery’s huge plate-glass windows blazed with light, revealing rainbow-hued sweets piled high in their display cases, and red, white, and blue plastic bunting fluttering from every available surface.
One evening, a private iftar party rollicked in Gourmet’s upstairs dining room, and the main floor was completely packed. At one table, three young men avidly slurped falooda, the sweet rose-syrup and vermicelli drink. At another, a lone woman in a spangled brown chador downed a plate of goat biryani, while a large family occupied several tables pushed together, the women wearing the loose tunics and pants called salwar kameez passing plate after heaping plate, their children fidgeting with toys, hopped up on holiday atmosphere.
This restaurant is a branch of a smaller spot called Gourmet Sweets and Snacks in the Pakistani neighborhood on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood. The original concentrates on mithai (South Asian sweets) and small savories, while the new Jackson Heights location is a spacious, full-fledged restaurant, open now nearly four months.
The menu advertises Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi cuisine, and when I asked about the style of the mithai, the genial guy behind the counter confirmed they’re a mix from all of those traditions. The harried but friendly employees speak to each other in either Hindi or Urdu—it’s hard to tell because the two languages sound similar, and share many words, including “bhai,” for “brother,” which gets bandied around a lot. Though Gourmet cooks dishes common to the three countries—like haleem—the place has a meat-heavy, Pakistani slant.
Most of the restaurant’s repertoire is arrayed on a long steam table, though the food does not suffer from sitting around. Maybe it was because all my visits came during Ramadan, which produced a high turnover, but Gourmet’s food is vibrantly, impressively fresh-tasting. In any case, many restaurants keep pre-prepared foods warm, even if they’re hidden away in the kitchen—no one is braising lamb curry to order. Behind the steam table glow two large tandoors, and next to them, a floured work surface where bread dough is slapped into shape before being thrown in the fire. You can order by pointing at what looks good, but I’ve found it more helpful to look at a menu first and choose a few dishes I definitely want to try. That way, if you are not South Asian yourself, you can avoid being steered away from spicy beef nehari and toward chicken tikka.
Gourmet’s food is a testament to all the many wonderful things one can make with humble cuts of meat, lentils and rice, and plenty of spice. Most iconic among them is haleem, the lentil, wheat, and meat stew that’s particularly popular during Ramadan. The version here tastes appealingly simple, the creamy yellow mung dal and barley simmered together for so long that it becomes a uniform, golden potage, humming with ginger and chilies. One evening, the haleem floated with tender hunks of chicken, though the restaurant probably also serves it with the more common mutton.
But the fireworks start with the goat curry: Rubbed with spices and cooked on the bone for such a long time that the meat goes limpid and utterly tender, it has the texture of pulled pork (not that you would find that here). Piled in a heap, with no gravy except its own drippings, the goat gave up the bone easily as we plucked bites of the green-chile-spiced flesh with bits of warm whole-wheat roti. Then, as is deliciously obligatory, we sucked out the gelatinous marrow.
Richer still is beef nihari, a classic Pakistani shank stew. Gourmet’s soupy rendition has a smooth, chocolate-brown gravy: an almost impossibly complex mix of long-simmered beef stock and ground spices with a layer of golden fat floating on top. The braised shank meat, sticky and luscious, lurks within, and when you spoon up a mouthful, it emerges like a sunken ship, heavy and dripping.
But unlike some other humble eateries, Gourmet does not rely on slicks of oil to make food taste good. (They’re only deployed when appropriate!) Keema, a heavily spiced ground-meat dish a bit like chili without the broth, arrives in a great pile of browned minced chicken, mung beans, tomatoes, green chilies, and cilantro. (This particular rendition is called “keema green peas” on the menu.) Nothing could be more wholesome.
The tandoors are employed to make a variety of flatbreads, including a hearty keema-stuffed naan. Whole-wheat rotis, pleasantly blistered in spots, are less substantial, and can be used as a utensil when eating with your hands. Aside from those breads, a menagerie of grilled meats sizzle in the fire. Skip the tiny quail, which look beautiful but taste mummified, and go for meats that hold up under intense heat, like the wonderful behari kebab, extremely tender slices of beef coated in a garlicky marinade. Lamb chops are so charred they flirt with overdone, but I love that carbonized crunch.
Before heading back out into the night, get a box of mithai. With such a large selection, there are bound to be some clunkers, but the sweets are cheap enough that you won’t mind, and all of them are remarkably fresh, though again, that could be because of Ramadan. From the teetering stacks of dairy-based confections, I chose the carrot burfi, fluffy and almond-studded, and the dense milk cake, which might remind you of cheesecake. I snuck bites from the box on my way home, vowing to stick to a secular fast the next day.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 2010