Sitar Indian Cuisine was known as Sitar India Palace for the first decade of its existence, though the original location was anything but palatial. The fact that the restaurant survived so long in an otherwise abandoned strip mall is a testament to the quality of the food. It didn't hurt, either, that Sitar was the first restaurant in the area to offer a broad selection of southern Indian fare.
The name change coincided with the move in January of last year to more spacious - and decidedly more attractive - quarters. Linen-draped tables, carpeted floors and ornate white woodwork against a backdrop of rich red and saffron gold create a setting that is, if not regally sumptuous, certainly festive and warmly inviting. At opposite corners of the main dining room are a tandoor oven that can be viewed through a glass enclosure and a platform where live sitar and tabla music is played on Friday and Saturday nights. Clearly, ambience has been given elevated status at the new Sitar.
Happily, the new emphasis on setting doesn't come at the expense of the food. The menu has grown a bit, in fact, and now offers more than 100 dishes, an extensive tour of the subcontinent from the kormas and tandoori dishes of the North to the idli and dosa of the South. Given the ambitious variety of the offering, execution is surprisingly solid.
Appetizers are helpfully divided into northern and southern specialties, making it easy to create your own self-guided tour. On the southward leg of that tour, masala dosa is a prime destination. A large, petal-thin rice and lentil flour crêpe with a delicately crisp edge and a curry-fragrant filling of mashed potatoes, it's served with the traditional accompaniments of sambar (a spicy lentil stew) and coconut chutney.
Heading north, you'll find the familiar pakoras and samosas, including excellent, flaky-crusted meat samosas with a savory filling of ground lamb and peas. The tandoori mixed grill is another winning starter option, served in ample portion for two to share.
On second thought, you might want to hold off on the mixed grill starter and instead explore the broader territory of tandoori entrees, represented by nearly a dozen choices from panir tikka to shrimp Malai kebab. Hariyali kebab, featuring boneless chicken breast whose surface is dyed emerald green with a marinade of mint and cilantro, is an exotic alternative seldom seen in these parts.
Productive as they are, Sitar's tandoori ovens (in addition to the tandoor in the dining room, there are two more in the kitchen that also turn out several worthy variations on the flatbread theme) are by no means the only source of rewarding fare. Beef vindaloo, which the waiter talked me into trying in lieu of the lamb vindaloo I usually favor, was a fiery delight, authentically pungent with vinegar and chiles. At the opposite end of the spectrum, and equally satisfying, was the tropical fragrance of ginger and curry leaves in the coconut sauce of shrimp doona poula.
Between those two extremes is a kaleidoscope of colors and textures: the buttery softness of cauliflower florets, punctuated by garlic, tomato and bell pepper, in lasooni gobi; the primal earthiness of goat curry; navratan korma's complex medley of vegetables and dried fruits in a delicately perfumed almond and cashew sauce.
I suppose it's inevitable, given the sheer number and variety of dishes offered, that Sitar's kitchen occasionally plays a sour note - lamb kebabs that are a little dry, say, or chicken 65 that isn't as crisp as it should be. Such miscues are infrequent, though, and certainly shouldn't discourage you from exploring the menu freely.
I even feel comfortable recommending the buffet, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the expanded selection includes items not available on the menu. Turnover is high, thanks to the dual attraction of good food and live music.
Of course, those weekend crowds mean that reservations are practically a must - a small price to pay, really, to enjoy the sweet music of the new Sitar.