A flavourful tradition continues

Paula Kelsall

417 Rideau St., near Chapel.
Photo Paula Kelsall

First, let us pause to remember the Sitar, a source of pleasure in our neighbourhood for 35 years, since the mid ̓80s. At a time when Ottawa’s dining scene was pretty pedestrian, the Sitar introduced many of us to samosas and naan bread, and gently lured us into a comfortable relationship with fresh coriander. It was innovative at the time, and it paid off; the restaurant was featured in Where to Eat in Canada for several years in a row, and even made it into the Sunday Travel section of the New York Times in 1996.

The Sitar helped our family celebrate birthdays, family gatherings and Friday nights, and gave us an airconditioned refuge on many hot summer evenings. So it was a dreadful shock one steamy night last July when the Sitar’s owner came over to our table to explain regretfully that the reason there was no beer on tap was that the restaurant was closing the next day. He was ready to retire. The new owners would continue the tradition of an Indian restaurant on the premises, but they would have their own concept.

So RamaKrishna, which opened in August, has big shoes to fill, but the good news is that so far it is doing a fine job. The restaurant exudes all the wonderful aromas we might hope for from an Indian dining room, and the food lives up to the promise of that fragrance. It’s been pleasantly busy when we’ve visited, too; it seems that both regular customers of the Sitar and curious newcomers have come to check out the restaurant, and are liking what they find.

The restaurant interior hasn’t changed too much; the lovely pierced metal light fixtures still hang from the ceiling, and a couple of the larger works of art are still in place. But there’s an enthusiastic young staff with electronic devices ready to transmit your order, more or less accurately, to the kitchen, and the service has become more elaborate, with small brass chafing dishes keeping the main courses warm at your table.

RamaKrishna’s menu is extensive and interesting, showing that Indian food has become thoroughly integrated into the Canadian scene. Butter chicken poutine, anyone? Indeed, butter chicken’s irresistibly sweet and creamy tomatoey sauce appears in many spots on the menu, including alongside all the biryani and tandoori dishes.

It’s a pleasure to find a generous selection of vegetarian dishes on RamaKrishna’s menu. There are the usual daal dishes—lentils or chickpeas with aromatic spices like cumin and coriander—and old friends like aloo gobi, cauliflower with potatoes in a savoury tomato and onion sauce. But it’s great to find that paneer, a firm yet creamy cheese, is also available with the same sauces that are paired with meat or fish on other parts of the menu.

We have particularly enjoyed the aloo tikki appetizer, a substantial dish of crisp potato patties served with chutney, yogurt and a chickpea sauce. The lamb shank from the tandoori section of the menu was also delicious, as was the shrimp in coconut curry. RamaKrishna has several variations on naan, and the onion kulcha, stuffed with onions and spices, is tasty and substantial.

There’s a buffet lunch at RamaKrishna every day, and a dinner buffet on Sunday. The lunch buffet was impressive on the day we went, with soup, salads and plenty of choices for vegetarians and omnivores alike, along with lots of chutneys and a couple of desserts. We particularly enjoyed the vegetarian samosas and the chili chicken, and were pleased when fresh naan was brought to the table when we sat down with our first plates of food.

Here’s hoping that the folks who brought us the Sitar are enjoying the next stage in their lives. And here’s to many more years of enjoying Indian flavours in the place where many of us encountered them for the first time.

Sitar memories

I don’t remember who first introduced me to the Sitar, but in the early ’90s it became the meeting place for the organizing committee of the 12th Canadian Hydrotechnical Conference of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering. It was centrally located for our members who came from the University of Ottawa and the National Research Council. The restaurant gave us a large table away from the rest of the lunch customers, and of course access to that wonderful buffet, mulligatawny soup and papadums Our motto then was “Don’t look up,” because the ceiling—under the Pestalozzi residence, above—contrasted with the rest of the impeccable décor.

We liked the place so much, that three of us—Mark Andrews, Professor Ron Townsend and I—continued monthly meetings well into this Century, until retirement took Ron and me, and Mark moved to Toronto. May the owners also enjoy their retirement, well earned. — Dave Willis