It can be discouraging when your dining companion takes one look at a restaurant you're about to review, turns to you and says, "You sure know how to pick 'em."
That'll probably be your reaction, too, when you glance around Sitar's bare little dining room. It makes your local McDonald's look like something out of Metropolitan Home. But forget the bare floors, the tile walls, the cafeteria-style setup, the Styrofoam plates. The room is spotlessly clean, the food stacks up against any other Indian restaurant in town, and it's incredibly cheap. If you want atmosphere, though -- well, don't say I didn't warn you.
The menu is extensive except that it offers no seafood. But rather than order a la carte, most people seem to get the all-you-can-eat buffet for $5.95.
The selection varies. The night we were there the choices were a tender, subtly spiced tandoori chicken -- less dry than usual -- and a lively chicken curry, an unusual salad made with chopped and shredded raw vegetables, a curried cabbage dish, dal (lentils) with an invigorating spicing, lemon pickle, a grilled Indian bread, rice pilaf and raita with yogurt and cucumbers.
We went hog-wild and for an extra $2 each had shrimp masala and lamb curry with the buffet. And, yes, I couldn't resist spending another $1.50 for two vegetable samosas, the tender pastry short and flaky, the potato-and-pea filling delicately spiced, with a coriander chutney for dipping.
I was impressed by just about all of it: the subtlety of the spicing, which let the individual flavors filter through the fieriness, the little touches like chopped fresh coriander on the lamb curry and shrimp masala, the generous portions of both the extra dishes (considering the price).
Just about the only thing I wasn't impressed by was the cucumber-and-yogurt raita, which was inexplicably sweet -- as though the cook had gotten hold of vanilla yogurt instead of plain and hadn't noticed. And while I valiantly tried the pretty little desserts, I couldn't eat much of them. Indian desserts are an acquired taste I've never managed to acquire.
What surprised me beyond the quality of the food was that a restaurant that looks like this -- with prices like these -- takes MasterCard, Discover, Visa and, soon, American Express. Next they'll be getting a liquor license.
Another plus, if you ever cook Indian at home: The restaurant is next door to Shyam Foods, a large, excellent Indian grocery store. (They're owned by the same people.) Here's where you get the spices to blend your own curry powder, pappadams and chutneys, Indian sweets, enormous bags of basmati rice and much, much more.
Sitar of India
Where: Pace Plaza, 1724 Woodlawn Drive, Woodlawn
Hours: Open Mondays through Thursdays 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sundays noon to 8 p.m.
Credit cards: D, MC, V.
Features: Indian food.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 265-5140.