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Food and Travel: Love me tandoor!

I CAN’T quite make up my mind if I prefer the new Sitar Restaurant, about 700m away from the old (formerly much loved) one.

The original Indian restaurant flourished for around 30 years in what is now, sadly, an increasingly shabby looking, by-passed for whatever reason, Newlands Shopping Centre. Getting in and out of the place was a constant battle with street kids or even more menacing street adults offering to guard your car for a pecuniary consideration (and tacitly threatening to do something unpleasant and costly to it if palms weren’t crossed with South African silver or American greenbacks.)
At night, the “old” Sitar had considerable charm; in daylight, even its most loyal adherents would admit it was beginning to look on the tatty side of neglected.
On a recent detour from Mama Mia’s for a pint or three in Billy’s Bar (ex-Billy Fudpucker’s), which stands next to the former Sitar, I was pleased not to see a single scruffy pan-handler or arm-twister. Maybe Julius, the amiable, super-efficient unarmed combat expert (Billy’s “bouncer” since it first opened) has finally driven them off, or perhaps they decided today’s decidedly slim pickings aren’t worth the effort on these frigid Antarctic nights?
Whatever! My next trip to Newlands was at night on a Thursday, which was always the most popular opening session at Billy’s. Candidly there didn’t seem many cars outside the friendly pub, when I turned away from the shopping complex into Cecil Rhodes Drive, where the “new “ Sitar is situated, at No 2, owner Kiran Patel’s extended Bollywood-style family home. It’s totally secure in a large manicured garden… and there are no pesky street people! Not even one!
I was told that the previous night the restaurant had been so jam-packed that they wouldn’t have been able to find me a table, but Thursday was fairly quiet: just one large boisterous group of earnest bonus-focused number crunchers and a few other tables taken.  Kiran was on his way back from Bulawayo — by bus — so young, ever-smiling lady chefette, Dhina Megan (a Zimbabwean of Indian descent; yet another successful former Meikles Hotel trainee) was meeting, greeting, seating and cooking!
The restaurant was pleasantly warm and discreetly lit with middle of the road standards (non-plinky-plonky sub-continental). Occidental music played at an agreeable level. A large, crispy pappadum (free) was soon delivered along with a fragrantly colourful array of dips, including hauntingly flavoursome coriander chutney. I am torn as to which is the king (or queen!) of culinary herbs: coriander or mint?
Then, with more aromatic and herby, spicy dips came golden deep-fried onion bhajis (fritters) and also deep-fried pakoras (spiced potato fritters in a special batter), which cost US$3 each and a “new” bottle of Pilsener. Which — if the breweries are to be believed — “we (allegedly) asked for… and they listened”.
Bulldust! Which lager lout right in head his would ask Natbrew to deliver approximately 14% less grog, yet charge about 14% more for it, while altering the brewing formula from one producing one of the world’s finest lagers to another in which the stuff is — at best — totally inconsistent in taste, “head” and aroma and — at worst — almost undrinkable?
Well… put up your hands! Did you ask for it? Of course not! Do they think we were born yesterday? Someone’s head should roll for this outrage.
After more than half a century of fairly regularly eating Indian food (almost living on it as a penniless student… when it was cheap!) I’m finally picking up an odd word of the lingo: “murg”, for instance, is chicken and “aloo” spuds! (But, paradoxically, “vindaloo’s” nothing to do with potatoes!)
I went for a US$10 makhani murg (I couldn’t get the name of the children’s toy, Meccano, out of my head!) Often called butter chicken, it comprises choice large chunks of tender white breast roasted in a traditional tandoori oven and served in a creamy butter sauce, into which vegetables have been folded. This atop a generously piled portion of basmati rice (the world’s best: long, thin grains, grown only in India and Pakistan) with flat, leavened garlic tandoori naan bread, still hot from being baked over charcoal.
Starter courses are from US$1 to US$4; rice US$1 or $2; breads US$1 to US$3 and vegetable dishes (many Indians are vegetarians or vegans) US$7-US$14. Chicken dishes are all US$9 or US$10, except chicken biryani, (which includes saffron-flavoured rice) at US$12; fish and seafood US$11-US$19.
Roughly half way through my mains, a European couple arrived, ate three large-ish courses, flattened a bottle of Cape red wine, got the bill, paid and had gone before I was served sweet! I heard they were regulars and phoned ahead with their orders.
Indian puddings, although often delightful, can be tooth-achingly sweet. I went for a “western” style sharp, tangy, fresh fruit salad and vanilla ice-cream at US$3.
Starters and pre-starters, main course, pudding and four lagers (well, the food was spicy and fairly hot!) US$30.
Sitar, 2, Cecil Rhodes Drive, Newlands. Tel 746215/746368. Closes all day Tuesday, otherwise serves lunch and supper daily.


Dusty Miller

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