A lucky encounter. One, we could shift ourselves and our appetizers to one of the large banquettes. And two, my friends were already regulars here and were familiar with the extensive menu. Plus, Indian food is served to be shared, with communal baskets of bread and large trays of rice to which small portions of all entrees can be added. More diners means more to sample.
We'd picked two appetizers -- one from the meat column, the other vegetarian. The samosas ($4.50) were formidable pyramids of fried flaky dough filled with mostly ground lamb and a few peas. The filling was hot to touch -- and taste -- and had just a little too much salt. The paneer pakora ($4.50), fried cheese fritters, had been batter-dipped and fried quickly so the sweet mild cheese inside remained firm and slightly chewy.
The cheese fingers left us a bit greasy. The mulligatawny soup ($3.25) was the perfect antidote. Mulligatawny, like other combination soups, can assume many forms, but this sweet, smooth puree of yellow peas, spicy with chunks of Tandoori chicken, proved to be the ideal palate cleanser between the fried appetizers and the more complex entrees to come.
Chicken do piazza ($8.50) was pieces of skinless, boneless bird in a thick brown paste that was earthy and hinted of cinnamon and ginger. I added the cucumber raita, so the complex flavors of spicy chicken were complemented by the cool shredded cukes and carrots in a mild yogurt sauce. My companion had ordered an adventurous dish, Tandoori salmon ($13.75), which arrived amid a huge cloud of peppery smoke that had our group, the waitress and another nearby table coughing: The accompanying julienned carrots, green peppers and red onions were still cooking away on the hot plate. When the plate settled down, we speared the pieces of salmon, heavily coated in red chili pepper. The fish was moist and nicely cooked, but salmon Tandoori-style proved to be a strange combination. The seasoning and the fish, each with its own strong distinctive flavors, were at odds with each other. Salmon, of course, is not indigenous to India, so this adaptation of a northern fish was more of a curiosity than a successful fusion dish.
Family-style dining meant I could just reach across the table and scoop up whatever our friends had ordered. The malai kofta -- cheese and vegetables balls served in a buttery cream sauce -- were something like bread meatballs, and a bit stodgy. But the other vegetarian dish they'd ordered, akbari aloo, a baked potato, filled with savory spices and fried, sat in a sweet, creamy sauce and had my fork shamelessly returning across the table for more.
When queried about desserts, the waitress lamented that the chef who made exotic concoctions with cakes and mangos was off for the night. Nonetheless, we ordered two menu staples: kulfi (Indian ice cream) and kheer (similar to rice pudding). I also asked for gajar halwa, since the menu description intrigued me: "mouth watering grated carrot sweet." The kheer was soupy and a trifle too cold, but the sweet, simple rice dish is always a nice cap to a spicy meal. So was the kulfi, which had the crisper texture of ice milk and harbored nuts and raisins. They also helped make the gajar halwa seem more dessert-like, but the chilled dish of minced soft carrots combined with some grain might have been a vegetable side dish. I like carrots, so I ate it happily, but reserved some ice cream for the very last.
We lingered comfortably. Sitar is in a windowless basement room (though there is outside seating available for warm weather) and the time passes unnoticed. Gossiping amidst a sea of dishes, we idly picked the remains of the food. There's something about dining in companionable groups where not a speck of food is left -- not the ends of the nan bread which can sponge up residual sauces or even the lettuce and tomato garnish upon which the samosas once sat. We eventually lumbered up the stairs and out. We made for our car, but our luckier Highland Park pals simply walked home. **1/2