Currying Flavor

Currying Flavor

I ndian culture is so sensuous. Its colors are vivid and madly saturated. (“Pink is the navy blue of India,” fashion deity Diana Vreeland once observed.) Its religious paintings feature blue-faced gods chasing after bare-bellied ladies draped in silk and jewels; its musical notes are named after animals and associated with body parts; and one of its most important contributions to world literature is the Kama Sutra.

New England, by contrast, can seem like a boiled dinner. So it’s extra-delightful, especially when skies are gray, to escape the gloom and indulge in the bright pleasures of India via its complex and fragrant cuisine.

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In a city with no fewer than eight (by my count) Indian restaurants, Sitar on Grove Street is a stand-out. Opened six years ago by brothers Inderjit and Malkit Singh, it immediately distinguished itself with its cooked-to-order delicacies; its service, which is so attentive and well-mannered that it’s almost courtly; and its immaculate kitchen—which I saw firsthand when I dropped in, unannounced, and asked for a tour.

Over time, Sitar attracted a small army of loyal fans, many of whom continue to flock to the restaurant for its buffet lunch, featuring salad, soup, three appetizers, four vegetarian (sometimes vegan) and four non-vegetarian entrees and dessert, all for $8.95. In a city where restaurateurs bend over backward to draw a lunch crowd, often without the hoped-for success, Sitar has triumphed, and continues to grow. In fact, the eatery added a full bar in January—previously it had served beer and wine only—and now serves cocktails from a cozy, six-seat barroom to the left of the entrance. Bigger news is that, in April, Sitar expanded into the former beauty salon next door at the corner of Orange Street, literally doubling its space to an impressive 3,800 square feet.

As it is with most Indian restaurants in the U.S., Sitar specializes in Northern Indian cookery, offering an exceptionally long and detailed menu of popular dishes like tandoori, kebabs, curries, biryanis and more, priced in the $12-$16 range, with more than 15 vegetarian entrees. I have a few favorites: for starters, there’s the Katchumber Salad, a $3.95 beauty made with finely chopped cucumber, tomatoes, onions and coriander tossed with an herb and spice dressing that my friend Nancy calls “kickapoo joy juice.” All the breads at Sitar are outstanding; if you’re dining with a group, ask your server for an assortment, and go to town. Chicken Tikka Masala, cooked with tomato, onions and spices, is the dish that, in my mind, exemplifies the Northern Indian aesthetic—it’s tender, creamy and aromatic, a symphony of spices blended to mild perfection. (Note: Inform your server if you prefer your meal “medium hot, hot, very hot or super hot”.) At Sitar, lamb is also handled beautifully: Lamb Korma, Lamb Saag and, especially, Rogan Josh are dishes I order again and again.

On weekends, Sitar’s buffet expands and goes south, offering Southern Indian specialties like dosas (fermented rice and lentil crepe), idly (a savory rice and lentil cake served with sauces) and uttapam (often called Indian Pizza, made with whispers of fresh toppings). To wash all of this down, Sitar offers some rather unusual beverages. In addition to the non-alcoholic yoghurt lassis, mango milkshakes, Masala tea and Indian chai, Sitar has a thoughtful and ever-so-drinkable wine list with offerings listed by intensity. These include three wines produced in India by Sula, all of which come highly recommended by Inderjit. After sampling, I have to concur. There is a satisfactory roundup of the usual suspects from reliable California vineyards like Kendall-Jackson and J. Lohr, and good news here, priced ever-so-reasonably; friends and I recently savored a Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon for $22—not bad, considering it sells at wine.com for $23. Beers, for their part, are extra-refreshing, as they are served in frosty, chilled glasses.

Although the decor is a little plain, the new space means that Sitar can now host private functions. I can imagine the fun of such a feast, with marigold garlands and Indian Martinis (made with vodka, triple sec, mango and a touch of lemon juice), plates of vindaloo and jalfrazi and keema mattar, baskets of paratha and chat, and perhaps animal notes being coaxed from a sitar.

Sitar Restaurant
45 Grove Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sun 11:30am-3pm (with an $8.95 lunch buffet) and 5-10pm.
203-777-3234 | info@sitarnewhaven.com
www.sitarnewhaven.com

Written by Todd Lyon. Photographed by Uma Ramiah.

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Todd Lyon has been covering the New Haven dining scene for 20-plus years. She has authored, co-authored or ghost written 17 books on subjects as diverse as business, wedding gowns and kissing; currently she co-owns Fashionista Vintage and Variety, a clothing store for eccentrics.

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