Seva Indian Cuisine (30-07 34th St., Astoria)
In Indian, the word seva means selfless service or work offered to God. It might seem like quite a lofty name for a restaurant, but considering the important role religion plays throughout Indian culture, including cuisine, it also seems somehow appropriate. Although Indian is one of the most popular foods in the world, I only first encountered it when I moved to New York City 7 years ago. And just like any food in New York, I've had several hit-or-miss experiences. Because of it's reliance on the masterful balance of various spices and cooking techniques, when Indian is great, it's a delicious feast fit for the gods. At its worst, you walk away with a sour taste in your mouth that won't likely soon dissipate.
It also seems to be a cuisine that not many people in my own personal circle crave very often, so when I recently found myself in company that loves it, I knew exactly where I wanted it to try it. And let me just say up front, Seva may not incorporate a lot of the gimmicks often employed in New York City Indian restaurants. You won't find servers beckoning you in with a complimentary glass of wine. The ceiling isn't sprinkled with strands of blinking Christmas lights. But the food at Seva is some of best in the city, a delicate, masterful showcase of nuanced spices, meats, and sauces that sing together harmoniously for a splendid feast fit for the gods.
Shortly after sitting down, we were presented with a very simple, yet delicious version of a classic Indian starter, papadum. The papadum at Seva is a paper thin, crisp cracker made from lentils, and served with mint and tamarind chutneys. A delicious orientation for your palate if you haven't had Indian in awhile, and a satisfying amuse bouche for the table.
I have an admittedly low threshold for spice, so although Seva allows you to order dishes spicy, medium, or mild, I always like to make sure I have a drink on hand to cool my tongue if things get too fiery. Made from sweetened mango pulp, yogurt, and milk, a mango lassi is a traditional Indian beverage that Seva prepares to perfection. The balance of sweet and creamy, it's just what I need to counteract sometimes aggressive spices.
The masala crab cakes are a hearty and savory spin on this popular seafood appetizer. Seva's interpretation employs succulent lump crabmeat, as well as garam masala ("hot mixture"), but rather than packing heat, packs intense flavors. Pepper, cumin, coriander, and other fragrant spices are balanced with the minty coolness of cardamom. In a pool of fresh mint chutney and lemon-cilantro yogurt dip, it's a beautifully balanced crab cake that offers a unique progression of flavors with every single bite ($5).
On my most recent visit, I was extremely saddened that they were out of bok choy. The bok choy crispy curls (fried in chickpea batter with mango powder) were my favorite dish during my previous visit, and are almost like a fragrant Indian tempura, which I will certainly return for in the near future. In their absence, however, we selected the sampler platter (everything pictured in the photo at the head of this post for only $6). The lamb spring rolls are golden-fried pastries packed with ground lamb, coriander, and green peas.
Pakora are like little Indian fritters... above is cauliflower and potato, dipped in a chickpea (gram flour) batter, and deep-fried. If there are state fairs in India, I have to imagine this is what would probably be a most popular dish. They're delicious, and dipped in the tamarind chutney, you can't stop eating them. Golden and crispy batter is a brilliant disguise for tender vegetables.
Samosas were probably the first Indian dish with which I fell infatuated, and Seva's are no exception. With the sampler platter, you get two of these pastry pyramids, one packed with curried potatoes, peas, and lentils, the other bursting with minced spiced chicken. Nothing is more disappointing than a dry samosa, but here, they are crisp, flaky, buttery, and filled with moist stuffing, almost a miniature meal in and of itself. Alternate dipping in the various chutneys, and you'll want a second order.
For a main course, I simply can't resist Seva's curries. Curry is technically a gravy, mixing spices, herbs, nuts, and yogurt carefully chosen for each dish. For the novice or skeptical Indian diner, chicken korma is a delicious way to go, blending almonds, cashews, and coconut.
Although Western influence has certainly impacted Indian culture, most dishes are traditionally eaten without the use of utensils. Naan bread is commonly used to pinch the food and basmati rice between the forefingers, as well as for soaking up the leftover curry sauce at the end of the dish. Though Seva offers onion, garlic, sesame, and cheese versions for $3 an order, I absolutely love the rosemary naan, yet another layer of herbs for a beautifully seasoned dish. Seva's naan is excellently executed, with a slightly crispy outer edge and delicate, soft, steamy inside. Why would anyone prefer to use a fork?
Our server recommended the parsi shrimp curry as his favorite main dish ($14), and I'm quite certain it will soon become my standard dish, as well. Succulent shrimp are tossed in an amber curry of tamarind, garlic, and ginger. Tangy, sweet, and spicy, it's almost like a tropical seafood stew over rice.
Diners who present a Why Leave Astoria? card are entitled to a complimentary appetizer or dessert. So of course, we had to try a sweet ending to such a savory meal. We fell in love with the gulab jamun, also known as "waffle balls" which are like deep-fried donuts with a cashew stuffing, glazed with honey, chilled, and served in rosewater with a hint of cardamom. Sweet, light, and extremely refreshing, it was a beautiful finale to an extraordinary meal.
Whether you live in Astoria or not, Seva should be on the wish list of any lover of Indian cuisine. They even serve an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 3pm for just $11 per person. A lunch prix fixe is also available for $13 throughout the week. Excellent Indian food rarely (if ever in New York City) comes at such a great value.