February 19, 2008

LEO's Eat 'N' Blog: We bring the heat in icy February

It’s cold. Too darn cold. Ice-on-the-sidewalk, snow-on-the-roof bone-chattering cold, and I don’t like it one bit. April and its green leaves and balmy breezes can’t come too soon for me. In the meantime, when it comes time to warm the inner man, I look for something hot and spicy to sear my palate and warm my soul. Happily, my need for heat was amply rewarded by the recent opening of Sitar Indian Cuisine in the Highlands, which follows the December arrival of Royal India in St. Matthews as Louisville’s second very good new Indian restaurant in recent months.Sitar, named after the Indian stringed musical instrument that Ravi Shankar and the Beatles made famous, is the first Louisville property for a tiny chain with four properties in Tennessee and one in Alabama. Sitar offers a hearty Indian lunch buffet daily for $6.99 cheap, and an expansive Indian menu that includes both standard Northern Indian dishes and, on a separate sheet titled “Dosa Hut,” less familiar South Indian specialties. The new tenants have significantly upscaled the previous burrito joint’s quarters. Walls are painted a pale orange-sherbet color and decorated with bright, poster-style Indian paintings and exotic statuary featuring Hindu deities. Tables are draped in black cloth and set with peach-color napkins. Authentic Indian music plays quietly in the background. We stopped in for the lunch buffet ($6.99) and a South Indian masala dosa and found it all excellent, good enough to bring us right back for dinner. Since Sitar, like most Indian eateries, boasts an extensive list of vegetarian choices, we decided to fashion an Indian repast in which no animals were harmed. Everything was splendid, albeit a little greasy. Cook with a lot of ghee (clarified butter), and that’s going to happen.We started with an appetizer order of panir pakora ($3.95), described as “homemade cheese fritters.” The Indian equivalent of fried mozzarella without the marinara dip, an order consisted of about eight small logs of paneer — the mild, white Indian farmer cheese — encased in a lightly spicy, slightly chewy deep-fried golden-brown crust.Palak shorba ($3.25) spinach soup was a steaming hot and comforting olive-green puree of finely blended spinach scented with aromatic spices, with tender potato chunks at the bottom of the large white cup.One vegetarian main course was channa masala ($8.95), tender chickpeas in a spicy reddish-brown sauce with sliced onions and a few small, hot chile peppers. It’s traditionally served with puris ($1.95), an Indian wheat bread that’s deep-fried until it puffs up into a golden balloon. Tear off a bit of puri, scoop up a few chickpeas and sauce and enjoy a remarkably filling, even “meaty” combination. It was made “medium-hot” as ordered, just warm enough to get your attention.Both Sitar and Royal India have quietly introduced Louisville to the joys of “Chinese-Indian” cuisine, the hybrid cookery of Calcutta’s Chinese immigrant community. This fiery blend of Chinese and Indian flavors is said to be immensely popular in India, but it’s a recent arrival in the United States.“Indian and Chinese-style panir chilly fry” ($9.95) did resemble a saucy, spicy Chinese dish. About a dozen oblong chunks of crisply deep-fried paneer cheese were cloaked in a thick, bright reddish-brown sauce with thin sliced onions and green peppers.I asked for “a little hotter than medium” and got it spicy enough to melt my eyeballs. By the end of the meal I was crying, sweat was pouring down my forehead and I was looking around for some burn ointment to swish around my mouth. It was February, and I was warm, and I was smiling through the tears, enjoying the endorphin rush.Glasses of salty lassi yogurt drink ($1.95) and a small dessert dish of kheer ($2.50), the creamy cardamom-scented Indian rice-and-milk pudding, made a fine antidote to the heat.A hearty dinner for two (with a good portion going home in a box) came to a gentle $38.75; I rounded up to an $8.25 tip for generally attentive and very polite service.Sitar Indian Cuisine1702 Bardstown Road473-8889Robin Garr’s rating: 86 pointsAnother day’s quest for hot-and-spicy warmth took me out to the East End to sample another new arrival on the local dining scene, Turkey Joe’s (“Wings, Burgers and More”). A collection of U of L and UK athletic memorabilia and beer signs sets the scene, and even the servers wear Cardinal red or Wildcat blue jerseys.Hot wings are the specialty, and you can take your pick of chicken, turkey or boneless chicken. We went with six chicken wings ($4.55) and three turkey wings ($4.55), and threw on a turkey burger ($7.95), just for the experience.Buffalo-style “hot” wings were just as good as could be, crisp and sizzling, tossed in an appropriately messy coat of Louisiana hot sauce and margarine. I made short work of three of them, raising my core temperature by at least a few degrees.Spicy peanut sauce wings fell a little short of the Thai-style experience I was hoping for: It reminded me of a sweet blend of peanut butter and ranch dressing. The turkey wings were very large, about the size of chicken drumsticks, and I liked the spicy-sweet Asian sauce. They were tough, though, requiring a cave-man-style grip-and-gnaw approach.A turkey burger, grilled dark brown, came on a decent white kaiser-style roll, dressed with standard-issue leaf lettuce, red onion and tomato. The burger was scented with spices and heavily salted, but lacked the juiciness and appetizing flavors I like in a burger, be it beef or bird or tofu. Onion rings (95 cents as a side order) suffered from a soft and greasy breading that was laced with an unidentifiable spice that I thought might have been cumin but that my wife insisted tasted like soap.Service was friendly, but pacing was slow. We waited 45 minutes to get our lunch, which came to a rather hefty $23.21 plus 20 percent tip. I’ll definitely be back for the hot wings.Turkey Joe’s2809 N. Hurstbourne Parkway327-9464www.turkeyjoes.comRobin Garr’s rating: 76 pointsNIBBLES“Dining for Dan” benefit at Corbett’sIn celebration of the life of Daniel F. Boyle, vice president of Food & Dining Magazine who died suddenly in November, 10 top Louisville chefs will collaborate to present “Dining for Dan,” a world-class, eight-course dinner at Corbett’s “An American Place” on Sunday, March 9. Eight of the chefs will each prepare one course, with Corbett’s chefs Dean Corbett and Chris Howerton coordinating; many of the courses will be paired with top-tier wines. There’ll also be a silent auction with a remarkable range of items and services available for bidding, including a week’s use of a house in Mexico, a long list of show tickets, many restaurant gift certificates and a long list of collectible wines including a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild wine and other rare wines, some in oversized bottles.All proceeds will benefit Boyle’s wife Sara and their two sons through the Daniel F. Boyle Memorial Fund established in his memory.In addition to Corbett and Howerton, participating chefs include John Castro, Winston’s; Michael Crouch, Bourbons Bistro; Jay Denham, Park Place and Browning’s; Anthony Lamas, Seviche Latin Restaurant/Bistro; Fernando Martinez, Havana Rumba and Mojito Tapas Restaurant; Todd Richards, The Oakroom; Allan Rosenberg, Seviche a Latin Bistro; and Anoosh Shariat of the soon-to-open Shariat’s Bistro.“Dan really loved Louisville’s culinary community on every level,” says John White, publisher of Food & Dining. “I truly believe a night with amazing food is the most appropriate way to celebrate his life.”Admission is $150 a person, all-inclusive. Seating is strictly limited to 140, and they will go fast, so don’t delay: Call 327-5058 for reservations. Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com