All the right notes
Sitar Indian Cuisine is a good alternative to Old Pasadena favorites
By Erica Wayne 05/13/2014
I have to apologize to Sitar’s Indian Cuisine, a restaurant in Pasadena’s Playhouse District, for having ignored it for so long after a visit to sample their midday buffet following its debut 13 years ago. Even though I was favorably impressed, other local establishments (especially Akbar, All India Café, New Delhi Palace and, more recently Radhika’s in South Pasadena) had won my loyalty for evening meals.
A couple of Thursdays ago, however, unwilling to cope with either Old Pasadena or South Pasadena Farmers’ Market crowds, we took advantage of a Living Social coupon (I’m continually amazed at the great deals you can get by subscribing to Living Social, Amazon Local, Groupon, TravelZoo, Blackboard Eats and Restaurant.com!) and brought an out-of-town guest to dinner at Sitar, scoring a perfect parking place only a few paces from the restaurant’s front door.
I had forgotten Sitar’s pleasant retro décor: cream and tangerine walls, apricot banquettes and chairs with abstract print upholstery, white and orange linens and floral carpeting. In the bar, which extends along the middle of the east wall of the dining area and divides seating into distinct front and rear areas, two flat-screen TVs hang on the wall, airing Bollywood videos.
A jolly gilded statue of Ganesha greets diners as they enter, and a number of Indian musical instruments, including a sitar and drums, are displayed within a carved palanquin set into a niche behind him. A broad stairway above the niche rises from the middle of the west wall, leading who knows where. Colorful Indian textiles are displayed throughout.
Taking advantage of the approximately 25 percent discount (including the price I’d paid for the coupon), we ordered enough food for a small army, or at least for the three of us, and a complete dinner of leftovers for hubby and me the next night.
The entrées included delicious chicken coconut curry ($12), lamb vindaloo ($13), lamb korma ($12), aloo gobhi (potatoes and cauliflower - $9) and eggplant bharta ($9). We sided them with garlic naan ($3), saffron rice ($6) and raita (herbed yogurt - $3).
We also got two orders of samosas ($4 apiece) to start. These were, to me, the only real disappointment. Perhaps comparisons are odious, but I’m addicted to the ginormous Akbar samosas, admittedly more expensive, with chunkier and more flavorful fillings of spiced potato and peas. Sitar’s samosas are smaller and a bit bland, although the trio of chutneys (especially the tangy mint) brightened them considerably.
Our friend’s iced tea ($2.50), my (a teensy bit too) salted lassi (yogurt drink - $3) and my mate’s huge $8 Indian beer brought the grand gross total of the meal to about $93, not excessive for the amount of food we consumed onsite and later took home. And our satisfaction with the quality of the cooking and service encouraged us to give the restaurant’s midday buffet another try last week.
The restaurant was packed with people when we arrived, a pretty good indicator that the quality was likely to be almost as good as our dinner, even though steam-table food isn’t the stuff that gourmets dream about. But it’s one of the best ways to sample a lot of items that otherwise would have to be ordered a la carte — an expensive proposition since rice, bread and even dipping sauces have separate and often substantial price tags.
Sitar has a permanent steam-table counter which extends across the rear wall of the restaurant. And the array was impressive. We began with bowls of delicious tomato soup and naan (brought hot to the table), then proceeded to the appetizers, all of which were sinfully deep-fried. Among these were crisp mixed vegetable pakoras and tender fish pakoras in spiced lentil flour batter. There were also “batada vada” (mashed potato dumplings) coated in chick-pea batter. Several house-made chutneys (including mango, tamarind and mint), achar (hot pickles), plus chili sauce and raita, were available for dipping.
After that, it was on to entrées. Meats included excellent tandoori chicken with lemon wedges and raw onion, plus chicken curry and chicken tikka masala, both relatively mild. Vegetable dishes consisted of dal makhani (buttered lentils and beans), rich palak paneer (creamed spinach), mixed vegetable korma (a mild yogurt-based dish), grilled mixed vegetables, aloo matar (potatoes and peas), and, of course, basmati rice. There was salad, too, which we ignored in favor of more interesting options.
Dessert was not overlooked. Sliced melon was plentiful, and there was a tureen of kheer, a soupy rice pudding with the teensiest bit of cardamom and perhaps a soupcon of rosewater that we lapped right up. And although we’d stuffed ourselves on a huge amount of satisfying and high-calorie food, I managed to put away two huge syrup-soaked gulab jamon balls, deep-fried and piping hot.
The cost was under $20 (plus tip) for both of us to eat ourselves silly. If we’d ordered the components separately, we estimated the cost would approach $150, so Sitar’s buffet is a real bargain.
But, still, if you look at the menu, it’s obvious that Sitar’s best dishes aren’t likely to appear on an all-you-can-eat array. For instance, tandoori rack of lamb ($18), chicken cooked with sweet and sour mangoes with peach puree, scallion and ginger ($12), and garlic shrimp, grilled then served in a creamy garlic sauce topped with mint and basil ($13).
The quality of both of our recent meals leads me to the conclusion that the above-mentioned items are presumptively delicious. In addition, Sitar’s location is happily close to the Pasadena Playhouse, Laemmle Theatres, Vroman’s Bookstore and Target. So there’s no doubt we’ll be sampling more of Sitar’s cuisine in the near future.
(One caveat: As with almost every Indian, Thai and Szechwan restaurant in town, most dishes at Sitar — even the ones described as “spicy” — are tamped down for American palates. So, if you like tongue-tingling, esophagus-burning vindaloos and rogan joshes, be sure to emphasize your preference when ordering.)