Right off the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway in Blue Ash, Sitar Indian restaurant sits alone in the parking lot, looking like the franchise restaurant it was in an earlier life. Fortunately, the franchise resemblance ends at the door. Inside is a clean, contemporary dining room with wooden shades, brick walls and little decoration, but Eastern touches are glimpsed here and there in the upholstery of chairs and banquettes, the pretty filigree screen separating the dining room from the hallway and the flutter of colorful saris worn by some diners.
Rather than focusing on one region of India, Sitar offers dishes from all over the subcontinent, reflecting the varied tastes and customs of the many people who call themselves Indian. From the appetizers to the desserts, one can eat north to south, east to west and not even make a dent in the menu. But we make a valiant effort.
I start with Dahi Vada ($2.95), described as lentil dumplings in seasoned yogurt. The dumplings are light and fluffy and remind me more of cottage cheese than lentils and come with a lightly spiced yogurt sauce that evokes the taste of Raiti ($1.95), minus its signature cucumbers, so I skip that traditional accompaniment for now.
We also try the Mix Platter ($6.95) of appetizers. The Samosa, little vegetable turnovers filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and the Pakora, mixed-vegetable fritters, are both good, not too heavily fried, as is the mixed Vegetable Cutlet. I am not as wild about the Kalmi Kabab, the little tandoori-style chicken wings that complete the dish, but the platter is a good way to sample several different appetizers
For our main courses, my husband elects the Tandoori Mix Grill ($16.95) so we can again try a variety of foods, though they are either grilled or cooked in the tandoor oven. The marinades vary, however, and the chicken, shrimp and lamb chunks are distinctively flavored. The meat is tender and juicy, and the presentation is attractive on a bed of sautéed vegetables. Basmati rice lightly flecked with vegetables is also served with the grill.
I am tempted by the southern Indian specials, so I order Masala Dosa ($5.95), a vegetable crepe, as a side dish. The size of a large pizza, the crepe is a crisp, airy concoction folded over a potato and onion filling, and served with mysterious condiments that I forget to ask about. It would make a hearty meal by itself, but as I have a seafood entrée yet to address, I eat only a little. I am not sure if you are supposed to pick it up with your hands or cut it up with a knife and fork, so I do both. It tastes good either way, although the seasoning could be a bit spicier.
Kerala Fish Curry ($14.95) is labeled with a "Hot and Spicey" warning, but my waiter assures me that the cook can cool it down. I don't know yet how hot Sitar makes their "hot" stuff, so I take the cautious route first time out. My curry is delicious, with succulent chunks of fish in a flavorful dark sauce, redolent of cardamom and other spices. I like it with the basmati rice that comes with it, but better is to mop it up with the freshly baked Nan ($2.50), the traditional tandoori-baked flat bread.
Desserts include Kheer ($3.50), a soft, soupy rice pudding flavored with cardamom, nuts and saffron that is pure comfort food, and Kulfi ($3.50), a similarly flavored ice cream that is very rich and even better.
Though a nice little bar sits adjacent to the dining room, Sitar lacks a liquor license. Our waiter says it is coming soon, but we don't miss it because we have discovered the Mango Lassi ($2.50), a precursor of contemporary smoothies. The mango yogurt blend is fresh and delicious, especially with spicy foods. Juices, soft drinks, teas and coffee round out the beverage selections for now.
Service is slow the night we eat at Sitar, but that is because of understaffing more than anything else. Our enthusiastic waiter guides us in our choices as we explore the menu and the different taste experiences Sitar has to offer. Fresh ingredients, exotic spices and attractive presentations make this a nice introduction to Indian cuisine for those unfamiliar with it and a welcome addition for those who have sampled other Indian restaurants around town. ©
Go: 4270 Hunt Road, Blue Ash
Hours: Lunch Buffet: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. Dinner: 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
Payment: All major credit cards.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Very