It’s something you hear a lot these days, a 12-word, double-edged sword.
This is the kind of restaurant you usually find in the city.
Your confusion is understandable. Sometimes those words connote a place with top-drawer chefs who’ve worked in Gotham’s finest kitchens, plus all the creativity, coolness and cooking chops associated with same. Sometimes they connote snootiness, pretense and high prices, or as one Google reviewer said recently of the new Mahal Classic Indian, “Roslyn Heights is not Manhattan, where rents are $30-40,000/month.” Very true, but Long Islanders with a serious devotion to excellent Indian food — along with the means to fund their habit — will nonetheless be thrilled, and perhaps even amazed, by what awaits them. Yes, the location is a graveyard of restaurants past, among them L’Endroit (1980-2007), Brivo (2007), Table 9 (2008-2011) and Antonette’s of East Hills (2012 till 2018, when it was seized by the state for nonpayment of taxes), but I’m betting on Mahal to sweep away all that bad juju.
It’s easy to see why the two-story, 180-seat structure would appeal to restaurateurs past, not to mention present ones like Paramjit Josan and Santokh Singh, whose attractive gold dinnerware and white tablecloth elegance tart up Mahal, rescuing it from an apparent beige banquet hall past. This is Josan’s first Indian eatery, and no doubt a welcome break from a past spent running multiple Checkers locations, although he does seem to have been a magician in that regard. In 2016, CNBC named him one of “America’s Star Franchisees.” And while this is the first restaurant chef Singh has owned, the 56-year-old arrives fabulously credentialed, having honed his skills in the kitchen at Manhattan’s Dawat, and for more than a decade as head chef at Tamarind Tribeca, where he dazzled 400 diners a night with dishes equal parts delicious and beautiful. Singh is strumming through his greatest hits at Mahal, but also testing out new material, and all in all putting on a mesmerizing show.
While Josan and Singh hail from the same Indian state (Punjab), and neighboring villages (Jalandhar area), the pair might never have met if they hadn’t found themselves living in the same apartment building (Queens) in 1993. They’ve talked about opening an Indian restaurant together pretty much ever since, a dream that kicked into high gear five years ago and was slated to become a reality not long after they signed the Mahal lease in late 2020. Anyway, 13 months and one pandemic later, here we are. A soft opening commenced in December, a ribbon-cutting is planned for mid-February.
“With Indian restaurants, there always seems to be something missing,” said Josan. “Some of the restaurants we go to have good food but not a good atmosphere, or maybe the service is missing. And sometimes we find everything we want but then go back three months later and find something is missing then.”
The only thing missing at Mahal the other day was a crowd of diners, but that was to be expected at 4 o’clock on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon. A few hours later the dining room would be bustling and full despite the weather, thanks to strong word-of-mouth both within the Indian community and beyond. Now only a couple of tables were occupied and the place was mostly silent.
Nothing distracted from an appreciation of Singh’s food, which repays all the attention it gets, starting with his palak chaat ($9.95), its spinach crispy, feather-light, thinner than the coverslips on microscope slides, delicately decorated with yogurt drizzles and dabs of date chutney, and festively presented in a martini glass. The malai naan ($7.95), featuring cilantro-flecked bread of sufficient char neatly stuffed with clotted cream and accompanied by a peppery tomato dipping sauce, was gone in seconds. The sauteed prawns in a third starter, thecha jhinga ($15.95), retained their bite and stood up gamely to a pool of oil fragrant of green chiles, coriander and garlic.
Singh’s most popular dish, shrimp moilee ($28.95), arrived inside a coconut shell, its prawns floating in a thick suspension of turmeric and ginger-spiked coconut milk that should have come with a straw, and was complemented nicely by a bright and crunchy papaya salad ($9.95).
The chicken tikka masala ($24.95) was unremarkable, but it had the misfortune to follow Singh’s Peshawari lamb chops ($44.95), which were the best I’ve ever tasted. “It’s all about the cut, the cut and the marination make all the difference,” Singh told me, declining to specify exactly what was in that marination besides garam masala, which told me nothing, as Singh makes his own. The meat was by turns lacquered and brown, tender and crunchy, flesh-filled and gone. Any dog who’d approached the table in hopes of cleaning bones would have left sorely disappointed.
For the quality of the meal and the flashy desserts that followed it — mango cheesecake and gulab jamun, both beautifully plated — Singh credits his deputies, chefs Sanjay Singh and Tenzin Rigsang, as well as his mother, from whom he learned to cook many moons ago. Mahal is a win-win: for Singh, who no longer has to commute to Manhattan from Hicksville, for Josan, whose years in the fast food trenches paved the way for this smartly run establishment, and for LIers, who, whatever their opinion of city restaurants, ought to welcome this one with open arms.
Mahal Classic Indian is at 290 Glen Cove Rd. in Roslyn Heights, 516-686-6983, mahalny.com. Opening hours are Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.