Monday, August 13, 2012

A Too Mild Medium at Sutra Modern Indian

Sutra Modern Indian on Urbanspoon It's really hard for an Indian restaurant to mess up North Indian food (i.e., curries), so for an Indian restaurant to stand out for me, something must be exceptional. At worst, it usually turns out "okay" or just "nothing to write home about". And with Indian food typically being cheap, large-portioned, comfort food, a place like Sutra -- a downtown location charging Yaletown prices for Indian food -- has a tough job to start with.
Late last year I visited the restaurant when it was just a few weeks old. Now almost a year later, I decided to try it again. Looking back, the main plusses of the restaurant were the hosts and the ambiance. Food was good or at worst passable. For a downtown location, you can expect part of what you pay to be ambiance, so $50 for two persons was all right.
The price is still okay at Sutra (for a downtown restaurant), but this past Saturday, my dining companions and I had a remarkably strange experience at Sutra which one hopes was just some sort of fluky one-off. But you never know.

But let's rewind a bit. Really, the experience of a restaurant nowadays really starts online, where diners might find a restaurant, read a review or two, and then contact them. From the get-go, Sutra had an ominous vibe because the restaurant website, (still listed on their brochures) no longer works. The menu on their Facebook page was 11 months old, but apparently the restaurant is still using the very same menu, so in the end the website wasn't all that important. They did promptly respond to my phone call for a reservation, happily enough.

The restaurant still had a comfortable, lounge-like feel and background music, and the owner, Paul, was still a personable host. That was reassuring. New to the restaurant since last year is the opening of the patio and we got to sit outside (which was a bonus on that hot Saturday when the inside of the restaurant would have been stuffy). But things got weird after that.

We were a party of five, and we drifted in separately. While my first guest was browsing the menu, Paul came over and in a sort of familiar, we-are-good-friends way, said she wouldn't need the menu, that they'd be happy to make suggestions and help us decide. Uh, okay... We sort of thought that because we were a party of five, they were going to line up some kind of tasting menu with share plates. Maybe. We weren't sure, but not everyone was there yet, so I didn't want to necessarily agree to or decline anything. In any case, he relayed the information to the waiter (there seemed to be just himself, one waiter, and one busser working the floor that night).

When the waiter came around he first asked about drinks and four out of five of us ordered the Mango Lassi. At around this time, the person who had been with me when Paul said the waiter would "take care of us" and we "wouldn't need the menu" pointed that out and decided to ask about it.
Paul confirmed this and said he would remind the waiter. Shortly after, the waiter came out and in a very friendly and personable way threw out some suggestions for what to start with and what mains to order. To be fair, I wasn't sure what Paul had meant, but at the same time, this seemed pretty mundane. The waiter was basically offering a couple of suggestions and getting our feedback.
Some of us had preferences and one person had a severe shellfish allergy. I stayed out of it to keep the votes to a minimum, and somehow things got decided. The one person with the shellfish allergy was certain we ended up with just five plates (she had made a point to track what we ordered because she needed to be alert to what might have shellfish).
For spiciness, we initially wanted "hot" but one person paled at that, so we downgraded to "medium". (Here, I obviously forgot my rule about group-ordering Indian food, because I'm happier with a spicier curry).

Somehow we ended up with two salads, two cauliflower appetizers, one daal, four curries in four different sauces, and four orders of naan. WTF? We let it slide because there may have been some confusion during the negotiation/throw-out-ideas phase, so that might have been partially our fault.
In any case, if you do go to Sutra and they offer to "take care of you" with regards to the menu, pay attention!
  • Mango Lassi ($4; mango puree, yogurt, agave nectar, and a pink swirl of rosewater)
    • I haven't had many mango lassis, but I thought it a bit powdery/grainy feeling. The more experienced mango lassi drinkers concurred, and also felt that it was quite watered down.
  • Beets & Greens ($9; marinated beets + organic greens (arugula) + champagne emulsion)
    • Simply done and tasty. I'm not good with bitters, so I ate my way around the arugula and just had the very sweet chopped up red beet.
  • Cauliflower Frizzle ($8; scorched cauliflower + charred lemon + tamarind)
    • The scorching happens on the top (the tiny flowers), browning it while leaving the stem slightly shrivelled but essentially raw.
    • The charred lemon was a half lemon with grill marks which you could squeeze over the cauliflower.
    • The tamarind was in a thick dressing generously applied onto the heap of cauliflower.
    • I'm not a huge fan of cauliflower, but this was quite interesting.
  • Daal
  • Curries
    • One saag with paneer. One very tender chicken white meat in an orange sauce. One beef, and one pork.
    • Tasted OK overall, EXCEPT there was NO heat to any of it. We had asked for Medium heat. This wouldn't have even counted as mild because there was no heat to it at all!
    • Even more strangely, one of our party absolutely needed some spiciness and after we didn't spot any servers coming out to the patio, she went inside to ask for some chili. She got a small quantity of achar instead, which didn't help at all.
    • I think the curries would have been fine -- but nothing special, just around on par with what you could get elsewhere (such as a no ambiance comfort bulk food place like Tasty Palace) -- IF there had been even mild spiciness/heat to it. If you've never had completely flat-mild curry, it flirts with disappointing/disgusting.
    • All four plates (plus the daal) came at the same time, so although we could have sent it back, it would have meant throwing away everything, and I think there was an unspoken agreement not to waste so much food by calling it a kitchen error.
    • I really don't know how better to convey how disappointed I was here. And since I chose the restaurant, I felt so embarrassed afterwards.
  • Naan
    • This looked suspiciously like toasted/grilled pita instead of naan. Very hot, so freshly done.
    • The basket had maybe two large pitas worth of bread, pre-cut into wedges. Somehow, this quantity showed up as $12 -- four $3 orders of naan. We didn't know what a single order of naan looked like, so we let this one go without any quibbling.
As we pored over the bill, a complimentary plate of four chocolate samosas ($6; white and dark chocolate + cream cheese) came to the table. The waiter said something about having asked the kitchen to make five, but he ended up with four. Huh?
Anyway, I had had them before and passed.

There was a small billing error (one of the two beers became a mango lassi) if you don't count the naan  as being overcharged, and after tax and tip we each paid $35. The restaurant did not pre-include a gratuity in the bill. The after-tax after-tip total was $175, which included some leftovers to take home and a complimentary dessert.

Takeout boxes were not cheap cardboard throwaways, but rather, small black plastic boxes with transparent plastic lids -- the type of container that is sometimes used with microwaveable frozen food.

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