Movable Feast: Sitar India

There’s no food better for these cold, nippy days than the cuisine of India. The vibrant colors of the sauces brighten a dark winter’s day, and the spicy hit of coriander, cardamom and turmeric is just the thing to give your taste buds a midwinter jolt. Lucky for us, University City is chock-full of Indian fare. There’s Tandoor at 106 S. 40th St. and New Delhi right around the corner at 4004 Chestnut St.

But the Current staff decided those were too much of a hike on a blustery day and headed instead to Sitar India, wedged in between Chili’s and Brownie’s at 60 S. 38th St., on the unassuming block between Market and Chestnut.

Keep in mind, you’re going there for the food—not the decor. The restaurant features shiny red tile halfway up the wall, a series of closely-grouped tables draped with red tablecloths and a few framed Indian wall hangings—and that’s it.

The buffet is really the main attraction, and on the day we visited, no one in the restaurant seemed to be ordering from the menu at all.
The buffet carts are tucked in the back corner of the restaurant and things can get a little tight when several hungry people converge at once.

Standouts among the vegetarian dishes include saag paneer—minced spinach cooked with cheese cubes in a light, creamy sauce—and alu mutter, a dish of peas and potatoes cooked in a traditional curry sauce. Also worth sampling (and served cold) is channa masala, chickpeas cooked with herbs and spices in a semi-spicy sauce.

The restaurant also offers soft naan—unleavened baked white bread cut into triangles perfect for scooping food—and poori, deep-fried puffed bread, which we found a bit heavy for a lunchtime meal.

Flagged as a “house special” the makhani chicken, with tender morsels of white meat in a creamy tomato-based sauce, is mild enough to be inoffensive to those with the shyest of palates. For more robust flavor, try the goat curry, featuring bone-in goat meat in a thick, spicy sauce. The rosy red tandoori chicken offers a change of pace in this buffet of curries and soups, though Sitar’s version of the popular marinated punjabi dish seemed bland to us. The meat dishes overall, we felt, were inferior to the vegetarian fare. But if you’re a carnivore through and through, you’ll put some on your plate anyway.

While the dishes didn’t pack enough punch to make us lunge for our water glasses, you can always load up on the spicy condiments and chutneys to add some fire to your meal. As well as hot and tangy Indian pickles, you’ll find a small dish of deep red chili sauce marked “v.v. hot!!!” No Indian meal is complete without a generous helping of onion chutney, and Sitar’s has a pleasant tangy crunch. Since we were stuffed to the gills from our buffet bonanza, we took it easy on dessert, opting for modest portions of sweet gulab jamun, soft milk balls soaked in honey syrup and served warm.

Sitar successfully fended off our winter day blues, and it was also a terrific bargain—lunch for three came to just $22.30.

Originally published on January 12, 2006