CUSTOMERS lined up early for the complimentary buffet offered at the much-anticipated opening of Himani Indian Cuisine in Astoria, this last week in May. It was a generous gift from the Kancharla family to the community.
The Kancharlas have lived in Astoria for nearly two decades, operating several adult foster care homes in the area. Three years ago, Mani Kancharla, wanting to share Indian culture and her love of cooking with her fellow Astorians, opened a food booth at the Sunday Market. The high quality of the fare offered at the stand soon generated many loyal customers who lobbied strongly for a restaurant. Although they have no previous experience operating a restaurant, the Kancharlas have obliged.
The first impression upon entering the restaurant is from the warm aroma of exotic spices that infuses the entire space. In contrast, the dining area is appointed with understated elegance. The food is of a level beyond what one might expect to get at an Indian restaurant in a small town like Astoria. Mani Kancharla, who is functionally Himani’s Executive Chef, translates her love of cooking and hospitality into her cuisine. You can taste the love and care that goes into every item, the food is that good.
The ambitious menu offers nearly 50 entrees originating from all over India, with an emphasis on dishes from the south. Southern Indian cuisine revolves around rice or meat. It is rich and aromatic, with a liberal use of exotic spices and ghee (clarified butter).
Nearly half of the entrees are vegetarian with a large variety of curries available. Especially good is Hyderabadi Bagara Baigan, a curry of eggplant stuffed with peanut, coconut and sesame seed paste; flavored with tamarind and served with Basmati rice. The complex layering of flavors in the curry marries well with the eggplant resulting in a satisfying dish that this writer will want to eat again and again.
South Indian specialties available at Himani include dosa: crepes made from lentil and rice flour served with coconut chutney and sambar (a spicy vegetable stew). Biriyani: rice with seasonings and meat and/or vegetables slow-cooked in a sealed pot is another traditional Southern dish.
A favorite of this writer is the Biriyani with Lamb. Rice with succulent chunks of lamb marinated in yogurt and spices is slow-cooked to perfection. The tender lamb nearly melts in the mouth; the rice absorbs all of the flavors of the meat juices and seasonings. A cool riata of seasoned yogurt is served on the side.
Another personal favorite, not listed on the menu, but available at the Lunch Buffet is Rasam: a broth-like soup made with tamarind, tomato, chili and spices. The sweet-sour of the tamarind together with the subtle heat of the chili will cause me to crave Rasam some cold winter day when I am feeling under the weather.
Prices at Himami are moderate with appetizers and sides running from $2 – $8, entrees $9 – $18, beverages and desserts are $2 and $4, respectively. The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is $10.
Himani Indian Cuisine is located in downtown Astoria at 1044 Marine Drive.
Open Monday – Saturday with only the lunch buffet available from 11am – 2:30pm, and dinner from the menu at 5 – 9pm. Himani will also be at the Astoria Sunday Market from 10am – 3pm until October 9.