Restaurant Reviews

Luminous Feast

Often, but not always, Indian food assumes the shades of warning signs and traffic cones. At Sitar Indian Cuisine, it's the tandoori dishes that come out this way. Lamb chunks and chicken parts are bright orange, as if spray painted by some graffiti vandal. The tandoori is an Indian oven that cooks at extremely high temperatures and can sear meat in seconds and bake bread in minutes. This striking red-orange is the traditional color of tandoori cooking, a hue shed by the marinades and spices used on the meats. In fact, you can even get tandoori paste and wipe it on the surface of meats to achieve that hot hue without resorting to the oven.

Tandoori cooking gives meats a distinctive, somewhat tangy flavor. Yet it doesn't seem to help all of the dishes at Sitar, up in the far reaches of Plano and Frisco. The boti kebab, a sizzling platter with chunks of orange lamb and curls of translucent onion and green pepper, wasn't shy on flavor. The meat had been seasoned before it was marinated in a blend of ginger, garlic, malt vinegar and no doubt other things before it was shoved into a tandoori. The racy lamb sweetness collided gently with the spice formula, and the meat was tender. But the flavors didn't coalesce as well as they might have because the meat was dreadfully overcooked and dry. Odd, because the slivers of bell pepper and onion that came twisted among the lamb chunks were scorched but crisp, indicating that the kitchen hit at least part of this dish dead-on.

The tandoori oven must be like a form of kitchen torture, one demanding exquisite balance in order to squeeze together meat and spice flavors while retaining the proper textures and moisture. It must be a delicate thing to harness, like a culinary bomb. Get something off by a second or two and you end up with orange shoe leather or a flat bread that could double as a clay pigeon.

Like the boti kebab, the tandoori chicken arrived on a sizzling platter, a whole leg plus a severed thigh and breast. Also like the lamb, the meat was stained Day-Glo orange, and since it was body parts instead of meat cubes, the whole effect was more compelling. But the chicken wasn't, at least not in the mouth. The meat was dry and tough, making it a rough process to gnaw and swallow. Only a couple of meat knots in the thigh section, near the knuckles, had any appreciable moisture. The rest was like sackcloth.

Funny how a tandoori oven tortures some things while it transforms others into angelic underwear, or something as delicate and luxurious as that. The naan, a soft flour bread baked in a tandoori, was a completely different experience than the lamb cubes and the chicken parts. The flat bread is cut into pizza triangles, and you get baskets of it. You also get baskets of papad, an addicting crispy lentil wafer that comes with mint and tamarind sauces for dipping, kind of like the Indian version of chips and salsa. Sitar has a whole panorama of tandoori breads: roti (Indian whole wheat bread); aloo Parantha (whole wheat bread stuffed with a potato and pea filling); naan stuffed with cottage cheese; naan baked with mint; naan jammed with cashews, cherries and raisins. We opted for garlic naan, which means it's stuffed with garlic. These warm breads are luxurious things, a provocative puff of moist, pillowy pita-like staff-of-life. It was hearty and hefty with clean garlic pungency and a little bit of sweetness peeking through on the finish.

Garlic shrimp, an appetizer, didn't see a tandoori oven most likely. Tiny firm shrimp the shape of giant pill bugs parked in a smooth tomato sauce didn't taste as garlicky as one might expect from the menu title. Naan was provided with the dish, which was perfect for sopping the sauce.

The first thing you notice about Sitar is that, like virtually every other Indian restaurant in the world, it has a buffet table for lunch. The table is draped in red, and it has decorous silver serving pots instead of a row of stainless steel steam tables. The second thing you notice about Sitar is that there is no pink anywhere. Burnt red and greenish yellow, yes, but no pink.

In fact, this is one of the most attractive Indian restaurants I've seen in Dallas. It's clean and understated, flashy and elegant without sliding into tackiness. You won't find gold-plated statues or fuzzy paintings on walls.

Overhead is one of the most intriguing false ceilings ever to cap a dining room. It's a red checkerboard or a maze board or something composed of wood boards, I think. In the center is a chandelier glaring through amber, green, red and blue glass panels. Wall sconces, mimicking the structure of the chandelier, hover above faux palace windows along the walls. At each end of the restaurant are large water walls pimpled with pebbles. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the water trickle and the sizzle of tandoori dishes. Trickling water can have an interesting effect on people: It can either relax, spark a rest room visit or drive a thirst.

Don't get thirsty at Sitar, because it serves no alcohol. When asked when the liquor license would come through, our waiter apologized profusely. Then he said there would be no alcohol because owner Mohammad Akbar Hussain is a devout Muslim, and serving alcohol goes against Islamic tenets, no matter how much extra revenue it could bring to his restaurant. Though it's no quencher for a hooch jones, the mango juice was so smooth and luxurious. I ordered a second, just like I would if it contained real proof.

The mango drink has roughly the same consistency as the mulligatawny, a dark yellow soup that was smooth and had hearty lentils. Yet it lacked depth and the mysterious layers of flavor that often mark Indian cooking.

Served in a bowl, the beef masala had roughly the same texture as the mulligatawny, except for the chunks of beef lumping the surface of the dark brown slurry. Cut into cubes, the meat was cooked to battleship-gray hues. Yet it was tender enough to sever with a fork, and the rich savory sauce, packed tightly into layers of flavor, infused it with more life than it had before the pink was cooked out of it.

Tomato shorba was clean and luxurious soup, though not clumsily opulent. By far the oddest-looking dish was the shrimp briyani, a kind of bundt cake with the hole filled in. The circular mass on the plate was actually a cake of compressed basmati rice with large, sweet prawns sewn in throughout the interior. It reeked of herbs and spices, and though the shrimp was slightly overcooked, the whole dish came to life when soaked with raita, a yogurt cucumber sauce dashed with cumin. It woke up the whole thing with a calm, cool ferocity.

Sitar lives up to its name via a display near the front of the restaurant. They have a small version of this long-necked stringed instrument on a red tablecloth, propped up by a few pillows. The music pumped through the restaurant doesn't seem to have much sitar strumming in it. Instead, it sounds something like Britney Spears might if she could handle Indian music. And that's enough to cause tandoori indigestion.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz