Dining Out: Sajni — London-style casual Indian dining in Rego Park

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When we lived in London, every neighborhood had at least one Indian restaurant. The function they served corresponded to New York’s neighborhood Chinese restaurants. They were a place for diners to go for an inexpensive but tasty restaurant (or “carry out”) meal that they couldn’t, without some skill and major expenditure of effort, produce at home. Like New York’s American Chinese restaurants, the dishes served were ubiquitous to the genre, and comforting in their familiarity to the patrons.

On this side of the puddle, Indian restaurants seemed to mean something else. They mostly catered to South Asian expats seeking the flavors of home, or to cosmopolitan diners who enjoy trying something different.

Sajni, on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park, is either an exception to that rule or catching the first wave of a new trend. It has the feel we remembered from London’s Indian restaurants. Our server was ebullient and welcoming. In another life he could have made a good social director at a Catskills resort. He was efficient, attentive to our needs, and seemed genuinely to care about of enjoyment of the meal. The space is small but freshly appointed. You can be visually entertained either by the flat screen TV’s at either end of the room tuned to Bollywood music videos or the psychedelic crystal chandeliers, which constantly change color.

The menu mainly sticks to Punjabi and other North Indian specialties, including Tandoori dishes and lamb, chicken, seafood and vegetarian entrees. Various vindaloo curries are offered for those who like it hot, but by and large, exorbitantly spicy foods are de-emphasized.

A few types of “chaats,” those Indian street snack foods, are offered as appetizers alongside some very good samosas (spiced potato-and-pea-filled pastries) and assorted pakoras (fritters). We chose one of our faves, pani puri. Crunchy little hollow balls of deep-fried dough are served with a potato-and-onion filling and a dipping sauce. You assemble this dish yourself by making a small opening in the dough ball, filling it and then dipping it. It’s fun as well as tasty.

Chicken tikka from the Tandoori offerings was outstanding. Boneless pieces of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices are presented at the table on a sizzling platter. Sajna’s rendition was exceptionally moist and juicy, with generously sized pieces of chicken.

Rogan josh, boneless lamb cooked in a thick, mildly spicy onion sauce, was as successful as the chicken tikka. The piquant sauce warmed our innards, and the lamb was neither fatty nor cartilaginous as can sometimes be with this dish.

Mutter paneer is a vegetarian dish of peas and homemade cheese. The sauce, creamy and rich, was a triumph, as was the delicate paneer. Unfortunately, the peas were hard, perhaps being undercooked dried peas, or overly mature fresh ones.

Daal makhani, another vegetarian dish, surpassed our expectations. It is a Punjabi concoction of slow-cooked spiced black lentils laced with cream and in this case punctuated with kidney beans.

The usual complement of Indian desserts is offered here. We ordered a garjar halwa (warm carrot and nut pudding) and mango ice cream. We accidentally discovered that the two eaten together make a winning combination.

Sajni is a great place to add to your repertoire of local casual dining and take out. They have daily lunch specials and an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. We only have one complaint. They tack on a 20 percent gratuity to all eat-in meals including the buffet. The service was excellent, and we would have tipped generously anyway, but think the mandatory 20 percent policy is inappropriate, as is their corkage fee of $1/bottle for BYOB beer and $5 for wine. Their food prices are modest enough that it’s still a bargain. Perhaps customer feedback may cause them to rethink some of their policies.

Price Range: Appetizers: $1.95-5.95, entrees: $5.95-13.99, lunch buffet $6.99 weekdays/$7.99 weekend

Cuisine: Northern Indian

Setting: Small, freshly decorated, crazy lights

Service: Effusively attentive

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: Optional

Alcohol: License pending, BYOB with corkage fee

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: No

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

Posted 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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