Do you long for the perfect weeknight Indian restaurant — somewhere nice but not too expensive, with friendly waiters and impeccable preparations of your favorite buttery, spicy, coma-inducing dishes? Look no further than … well, Grove and Orange, but the trek to Sitar is a small price to pay in order to satisfy your subcontinental cravings.
Don’t think of the distance (only a block and a half past TD) as a downside. Consider this classic Indian establishment to be a hidden gem, a New Haven secret waiting to be discovered. Its prices are better than Zaroka’s, its preparations richer than Tandoor’s or Royal India’s, and its service is faster and friendlier than anywhere — maybe in part because the restaurant is usually near-empty, but there’s no harm in taking advantage of that.
Nonetheless, Sitar is not the right place for Indian food aficionados looking to expand their culinary horizons. The menu doesn’t contain anything unusual — mostly the usual selection of chicken and lamb tikka, korma, saag or vindaloo, with a fairly standard list of pita-like naan and roti breads with which to mop up the sauce. Like most Indian restaurants, Sitar also offers a decent selection of vegetarian items, none of which are particularly innovative either. And the appetizers and drinks — good but generally unexciting — follow the same lines: Vegetable Samosas ($3.50 for two pieces), crispy flaky dough filled with spicy mashed potatoes and peas, are a crowd-pleasing standby, while the ever-popular Mango Lassis ($3.95) are sweetly refreshing as per usual.
But just because the offerings mostly consist of old standards doesn’t mean they’re merely ordinary. Sitar’s strength lies in its main dishes’ consistently rich and flavorful sauces, which give new life to the same Chicken Tikka Masala that white kids have been ordering since the beginning of time. For the slightly more adventurous, Muglai Korma ($12.95) is a worthwhile chicken alternative, replacing the standard tomato-based sauce with a sweet and nutty gravy sprinkled with raisins. And its counterpart Lamb Korma ($13.95) is even better, containing morsels of the tenderest lamb, presumably protected from overcooking by a thick concoction of cream, nuts and spices. Mop it up with buttery nan — plain or (for a tiny bit of variety) stuffed with minced sweet onions — for the closest Indian equivalent to comfort food.
But as consistently satisfying as the meat dishes may be, it’s actually the vegetarian selections that make Sitar a truly delightful dining experience. Its Malai Kofta ($10.95), a dish of vegetable fritters along the lines of softer, oblong falafel balls in delicately nutty gravy, is an ideal example of the heavy, creamy preparations Sitar is so good at. But Malai Kofta, which is less vegetable-filled than most vegetarian options, can easily be found elsewhere — Sitar’s version is tasty, but nothing different.
Like the Malai Kofta, the Shahi Paneer ($13.95) is a vegetarian option that provides all the satisfaction of a meat dish. Unlike the tender fritters, however, the Shahi Paneer is slightly off the beaten path in terms of typical vegetarian Indian offerings. The dish consists of homemade soft white cheese cubes cooked in a thick tomato soup-like sauce redolent of onions and spices. Just one small step from everyone’s favorite Chicken Tikka Masala, with a similar sauce but cubes of paneer instead of chicken, this dish will please herbivores and carnivores alike.
These vegetarian delights should be enough to convince even the most dedicated meat-eaters to change their tune for an evening. But if a little more convincing is needed, try the Saag Paneer ($10.95), possibly the best item on the menu. Many Indian restaurants underwhelm with these cubes of homemade soft white cheese cooked in creamy spinach — the paneer is often chewy and bland, the spinach too bitter or watery. But unlike these lesser establishments, Sitar puts more effort into their vegetarian dishes (if by effort you mean cream). Richer, more flavorful Saag Paneer than Sitar’s is impossible to imagine. The texture of the cheese is closest to that of French toast, soft enough to slice through easily with a fork and melt in your mouth, but firm enough to maintain its shape as it simmers in the spinach. The spinach itself is thick, slightly sweet and spiced to perfection — it’s actually so flavorful that the leftovers are nearly as enjoyable cold (for those of us too lazy to use the microwave).
Of course, that probably has a lot to do with the cream and butter lavishly mixed into the spinach, not to mention whatever fat is contained in the cheese. As evidenced by the preponderance of the words “creamy” and “rich” in the preceding paragraphs, Sitar is not the right place for calorie-counters. That said, anyone who likes Indian food would be downright stupid to pass up these fabulous and reasonably priced versions of old favorites for a silly reason like health. And anyway, it’ll all get burned off on the long walk home.