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‘Skint’ at Sitar!

LAST Wednesday week was a great night for a warming good, old fashioned curry.

Eating Out with Dusty Miller

We’d had three consecutive days of horizon-to-horizon steel grey overcast cloudy conditions coupled with a bone-chilling, biting wind that was dismal and depressing.

In Central Africa we possibly have 20 days a year like that. By Thursday the sun was beaming merrily, with hardly a cloud in the sky; temperatures peaked in the mid-20s.

If you wanted to know how fortunate we are with weather it was only necessary to watch cricket from England and Wales, or the bits that could be played between torrential freezing rain as thin “crowds” watched as if dressed for the Arctic!

So a curry was a great idea. A problem: I was running out of loot, with no time to get home to replenish my stash or drive to an ATM.
The night before, Arnaldo’s, Kensington, where I’d fancied gnawing a plump piri-piri chicken leg, was in darkness at 8:25pm. (Verily Ha-ha-ha-rare, Africa’s fun city, isn’t exactly Manhattan) and my Tissot divers’ chronometer read it was already 8:37pm as I pulled into the Sitar’s drive.

I was pleased to see a few cars parked in the drive of the Bollywood-style construction now doubling as home and business HQ for the Patel family who’ve run Sitar on two different Newlands sites at least a third of a century; and even more pleased to find Mary-Anne Austin, meeting, greeting and seating.

I was less pleased when she said the outlet didn’t have a swipe-machine for debit/credit cards (in the 21st century?) and had mixed feelings when she told me she’s be leaving Sitar “soon” to open her own coffee shop just “round the corner”, a move I’ll tell you more about later.

I was “up” when Mary-Anne said not to worry about the money…my credit was good; I could pop back the next day and pay and “down” when she revealed that young, ever-smiling lady chefette, Dhina Megan (Zimbabwean of Indian descent; yet another successful former Meikles Hotel/Professor Mike Farrell trainee) had left Sitar, head-hunted to Cresta Oasis, by that hotel group’s new-broom chief operating office, Glenn Stutchbury. Chef-proprietor Kiran Patel was down in Bulawayo, but his likeable son, Kyle—who chef-trained in Cape Town — was cooking. No problem with that.

The restaurant was pleasantly warm and discreetly lit with middle of the road standard 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. Which is the king (or queen!) of culinary herbs: coriander or mint?

Starters are from US$1 to US$4; rice US$2/US$2,50; breads US$1,50 to US$2 and vegetable dishes (many Indians are vegetarians or vegans) US$8-US$15. Chicken dishes are all US$11 or US$20, except chicken biryani, (which includes saffron-flavoured rice) at US$13; fish and seafood US$12 (fish masala) to US$22 for piri-piri prawns.

Curry fans argue long and bitterly over the origins of chicken tikka masala. Purists claiming it is a centuries old north Indian dish, but a wide body of knowledgeable opinion asserts it was first created in a traditional curry house in Glasgow, Scotland. Birmingham and Newcastle are also named as its putative birthplace.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Dhina/Kyle’s version in the past: generous rough-cut chunks of tender chicken marinated in spices—of which coriander has the most recognisable flavour and aroma — and yoghurt, baked in a red-hot clay tandoor oven, served with a deliciously rich masala (mixed spice) sauce which usually comes with a roti (unleavened bread from the sub-continent) and sabzi ka pilao: big, fluffy, grains of white basmati rice into which various vegetables are folded. It’s colourful, looks nice and presumably does you good!

There are also “depth charges” of various condiments, pickles and spices, a sample of most, mixed into my rice-and-poultry platter, gives an interesting depth of attractive and pleasant tasting contrasting flavours, textures and colours.

But last week — continuing my on-going comparison of prawn curries available around the dorp-— I ordered crustacean-packed prawn green masala curry “mild-to-medium” (it could have done with it being served a wee bit hotter) which I thought lacked some of the depth of flavour experienced with this dish there before at a reasonable US$17.

I asked for it with yellow dhal (split peas/lentils) which—at US$8 a pop — is bit pricey, but would easily serve more than one punter and a beautifully rich garlic naan bread for US$1,50.

There was far too much food for a singleton, anyway, but then I went overboard and ordered pilao rice. This was another US$2,50, but seems to have been missed off the bill.

There was nice crowd in the eatery and I thought not a single punter smoked: civilisation at last in Zim! Apparently I was wrong, one yummy-mummy reportedly left her party twice, going into the empty bar alone for a couple of gaspers.

The heaters worked but were not over-the-top in your face belting out BThUs, as they very often are in winter in Zim.

Indian puddings, although delightful, can be tooth-achingly sweet. I usually go for a “western” style sharp, tangy, fresh fruit salad and vanilla ice-cream at US$5, but on this occasion ordered kulfi, a cardamom flavoured Indian dessert — the equivalent of Western ice-cream—but much richer and denser at a dollar more.

With two Golden Pilsener Lagers at US$2 each, but without the rice they presumably omitted to charge for (spotted a few days later as I checked the bill for this review), the bottom line was US$36,50, rounded up (never rounded down, are they?) to US$37.

I had only US$35 cash on me, which Mary-Anne said was “quite fine” under the circumstances, so I drove home perhaps 2,5 km, totally skint, having — unforgivably — had nothing left to tip the
waiter or askari guarding the car-park.

I hang my head in shame, guys!

Sitar, 2, Cecil Rhodes Drive, Newlands. Tel 746215/746368. Closed Tuesdays, otherwise lunch and supper daily.

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