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Novelty: Spicy Sikh-run Indian eatery in Richmond Hill

Our favorite thing about living in Queens is the amazing bounty of cuisines available in the ethnic enclaves of our borough. A few years ago, Jackson Heights was considered the go-to nabe for Indian delights. Floral Park ran a distant second, probably because of its lesser access by public transportation.

There is a third contender, with a distinctly different character. Two different groups of Indian heritage have settled in Richmond Hill. One is Indo-Caribbean, from places like Guyana and Trinidad. When you see “roti” as the star attraction on the menu, the owners probably hail from our hemisphere.

The other dominant group of Indo-Richmond Hillians is the Sikhs. You can recognize devout Sikh men by their turbans. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century that embraces some of the practices and beliefs of both Hinduism and Islam. The state of Punjab, in India, is the heart of Sikh culture, so Punjabi-style Indian cuisine is what you are most likely to find at a Sikh dining establishment.

Novelty is a new Sikh-owned and -run Indian restaurant on 101st Street in Richmond Hill. Although strict Sikhs are often vegetarian, Novelty cooks up some awesome Indian grub, both vegetarian and non. It is no wonder, because we are told that their chef is the brother of the owner of Five Star Punjabi, that Long Island City institution much celebrated by both Indian food aficionados and South Asian cabbies.

Novelty offers most of the Indian dishes we’ve ever heard of, and a few we hadn’t. We started with a super rendition of chili shrimp, an Indian Chinese-style preparation that has caught on over here in a big way. The shrimp, sauteed with peppers and onions in a spicy sauce, were imposing in size and succulent, and the sauce piquant.

We also sampled their kaju roll, something new to us. It was as described, mashed potatoes in a thin crust. To our western palate, it was tasty, but would have worked better with other companion dishes. It comes as a plate of seven, so share an order around if you’re with a group. There are plenty of other tempting appetizers to complement it, like various pakoras (fritters) or chaat papri (crunchy shells, potato and chick peas topped with yogurt and tamarind sauce).

Lamb chops arrived at our table with major sizzle. Although not billed as one of their Tandoor Specials, they were served Tandoori-style on a scorching platter. This rack of lamb was heavily marinated in garlic and herbs in a yogurt-based marinade and then roasted on skewers. The chops, individually decorated with aluminum foil frills, were lean, tender and suffused with great flavors. This elegant entrée, while probably the most expensive item on the menu, is a real bargain at a mere $13.99.

Dairy products are very important to Punjabi cuisine. Ghee (clarified butter) is the fat of choice; yogurt and cream are essential to many sauces; and paneer, the versatile, non-melting homemade Indian cheese, pops up all over the place. Paneer bhurji was a new dish for us. Its central ingredient is paneer that has been grated into shreds and cooked with bell pepper, tomato, garlic and ginger. It is homey but delicious, especially when eaten in the traditional manner of scooping it up with a warm, elastic triangle of naan, the Tandoori bread.

Bits of paneer also made an appearance in vegetable jalfreji, a pleasingly spicy mixed vegetable dish in a tomato sauce. Sarson ka saag, a dish we sampled from the buffet table is a favorite, we are told, among Sikhs. We always thought “saag” meant spinach, but were wrong. In this case, the saag is made from mustard leaves. It has a different flavor (mostly in the aftertaste) than spinach, and is very tasty.

We couldn’t resist trying a beverage that was new to us — jaljeera pani. It was billed on the menu as being spicy. We didn’t find it so — only weirdly refreshing. The main flavoring is cumin (“jeera” in Hindi). This herb is added to Sprite (yes, the American soft drink) along with mango powder and possibly Kala namak (black salt, which adds a hint of sulphurousness). The result is a little sweet, a little herbal and faintly funky.

Desserts here are classically Indian. Choose from sweet Indian puddings like ras malai (milk pudding), kheer (rice pudding) or gajrella (carrot pudding). Or better yet, sidle up to the counter and pick some dense, fudgy homemade Indian sweets like barfi (don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like) or gulub jamin.

The Bottom Line

Novelty’s kitchen cooks with expertise and love. If you are a vegetarian, your options here are plentiful. If not, they are exhaustive. Prices are modest. We must caution, however, that it’s not a place for the spice-averse, or those who demand fancy surroundings to enjoy a meal. If you just love great Indian food, put Novelty on your agenda.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.”She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Novelty Indian Sweets & Restaurant

110-15 101 Avenue

Richmond Hill, NY

718.441.5484

Price Range: Appetizers: $1.50-10.99, Entrees: $6.99-13.99,

Cuisine: Punjabi Indian

Setting: Small, clean, undecorated

Service: Needs polish

Hours: Open from 11 a.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day

Reservations: Optional

Alcohol: Verboten

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Music: Recorded

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

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