I’ve long been puzzled by the vacant restaurant space on Capitol Avenue that Preethi Indian Cuisine now occupies. More than a decade ago it housed the late, lamented Sakurabana, a modest Japanese restaurant. Then it housed catering and gelato places that never quite got off the ground.
Situated as it is in smack dab in the middle of midtown’s most-thriving restaurant row, the space seems like one where a restaurant would thrive, especially with its big picture windows. Maybe now it will. Last year, the owners of Davis restaurant Preethi bought the building, and this spring they opened an outpost of their Davis original.
There’s a long and varied menu, one that adds to the north Indian style dishes that most downtown Sacramento Indian restaurants have offered to date. Preethi might well be the first restaurant in the central city to offer south Indian specialties such as dosas, idli, vada and uttapam. (There are several, however, in Roseville, Folsom, Fair Oaks and elsewhere around the region.)
The masala dosa, a beautiful cylindrical crepe, tangy and crisp-edged, with a light-tasting, beautifully spiced potato masala filling. It was especially good with the coconut chutney served alongside, and I loved the thin, savory sambar (lentil soup) as well.
Although Preethi’s southern Indian dishes don’t make up the majority of its menu, they are a welcome addition. The cuisines of India are far more varied and sophisticated than is represented in the narrow slice those cuisines offered at most U.S. restaurants. I’d love to see more representation in Sacramento for Indian regional cooking that goes beyond the choices that have become familiar to Americans on restaurant menus: tandoori meats, fried snacks such as samosas and pakoras and rich Westernized dishes like chicken tikka masala.
All those are nicely executed at Preethi. Samosas and especially the mixed pakoras (fritters) were perfectly fried and greaseless, with a fragrant mixes of spices. The tikka masala (a favorite of my kids, with its mild creamy sauce) is smooth and carries a pleasant tang to balance its richness. I was more struck, however, with the depth of flavor in the south Indian chicken curry – an unassuming-looking dish, with the tan color of its many spices, but with tender chicken and complex spicing.
I tried the latter at the thrifty lunch buffet ($12 for all you can eat), which had its points but which overall was less fresh and far less varied than the dinner menu. It’s a good quick option, but much of the food – breads like naan especially and richer dishes like palak paneer – suffered from sitting out, awaiting consumption. If lunch business picks up, and turnover is quicker, the lunch buffet could be an appealing spot, but for now it’s mixed.
Other details need attention, too. The stack of plates at the buffet is haphazard, with a lot of them chipped, so that the operation feels a little amateur. Preethi’s space still bears the marks of its long vacancy. Parts of the large dining room feel a little abandoned: there’s a perplexing sink in one corner, some booths are wedged in awkwardly, the door sticks and a bathroom is out of order. The layout is awkward, with the lunch buffet in the back but not facing the door (so it’s not immediately apparent how to navigate it) and no host station to offer a clear welcome.
Most of the business here appears to be takeout; on my dinner visits, few tables were filled, but a steady stream of customers came in to pick up food. Lunch was slightly better populated, but not enough to move the food fast enough to keep it truly fresh. At dinner, the naan that was hard and tough at lunch came out straight from the oven and was blistered and tender, so much so my table fought over it; we also enjoyed keema naan, made with paneer.
Cooked-to-order fare at dinner was mostly a pretty good bet. The chicken and lamb in the tandoori mixed grill were both zingy and juicy, though shrimp in the same dish was oddly undercooked and mushy. Lamb biryani boasted long, light, separate grains of well-spiced basmati rice and chunks of whole spices; its heat was nicely offset by thin, pleasantly sour raita.
Vegetarians will find much to entice them here, with entrees like channa masala and mutter paneer, and several eggplant, potato and other vegetable dishes in addition to the south Indian dishes mentioned above.
There’s plenty for meat eaters, as well, including a standout goat koorma, a curry with a yogurt base. The slight muskiness of the tender goat harmonized beautifully with the tang and heat of the sauce. Gongura chicken – a dish from the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh – also had a balance of tartness, as its base is a sour leaf, the namesake gongura, that’s a popular vegetable in the region.
The kitchen here has a nice hand with sour flavors. Green chutney, fresh and tart, had a balance pungent onion and gingery zest, with a fresh flavor and pale celadon hue – a refreshing change, as I’ve often seen this type of chutney in restaurants with an artificial-looking, bright kelly-green color.
I enjoyed the sweets available at the lunch buffet. Syrup-soaked, tender gulab jamuns and the thin, milky rice kheer, scented with cardamom, made a lovely ending to a meal with a cup of the strong, hot, milky chai.
There’s a good deal of promise in the kitchen at Preethi, especially in the menu’s regional dishes. I see room for improvement, however, in the ambiance and especially the lunch buffet offerings. If this new denizen of Capitol Avenue can overcome those hurdles, let’s hope this once-abandoned prime Midtown space can be occupied for the long haul.
Preethi Indian Cuisine
1905 Capitol Ave. 916-573-3052. preethiindian.com
Hours: 11 a.m to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Cuisine type: Indian
Price range: Appetizers and sides $3 to 10, entrees $9 to 19 (up to $23 for full-meal thali with rice, naan, dal, raita and dessert). Lunch buffet $12.
Food: A welcome addition to the downtown core’s slim selection of Indian restaurants, Preethi is one of the few in the central city to serve southern Indian dishes such as dosas, plus a wide range of fresh-tasting, aromatic, balanced north Indian entrees and standout naan. The lunch buffet, sadly, seems a bit drab.
Service: Attentive and kind, though not highly professional. That said, water glasses are filled promptly and the server seemed eager to provide a good experience.
Ambiance: This restaurant space was vacant for a long time, and it still feels a little empty, with not much atmosphere and a somewhat motley collection of furnishings, though a coat of colorful paint livens things up.
Accessibility considerations: Parking in the neighborhood can be challenging. Buffet and restaurant layout may be difficult to navigate. Some booths are very small and may be inaccessible for some diners.
Noise levels: Moderate to quiet.
Drinks: Very limited selection of beer and wine. Nonalcoholic selections include lassis, chai and soft drinks.
Vegetarian options: Plentiful, including numerous and varied entrees, dosas, biryani and appetizers.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Buffet choices and menu items are not labeled for allergy concerns; diners should inquire.