Tandoori mixed grill is a hit at Haveli in Fitchburg.
The address at 5957 McKee Rd. in Fitchburg has a tortured history. It's been home to Fitch's Chophouse, Good Times, Kickshaw and Jimmy's American Tavern -- all in just eight years. After Jimmy's closed, the enormous space was wisely parceled out into smaller units. Chef Dan Fox of Heritage Tavern snapped up the large basement kitchen and now uses it for catering and a heritage pork wholesale business. Another section became a nail salon, another a software company. The remaining piece is now Fitchburg's only Indian restaurant, Haveli.
Haveli's owners, brothers Devinder Singh Badwal and Sital Singh, operated Flavor of India on the Capitol Square until 2011, and still own Taste of India on Monroe Street.
The airy space that once housed the clubby Fitch's Chophouse is oddly suited to an Indian restaurant. The tall glass windows have been partially covered in long drapes, making for a color-drenched space by day and a pleasantly romantic setting at night. During lunch, the room fills with work-break diners drawn by the expedient buffet. In the evening, the establishment is populated almost exclusively by couples.
But I didn't find a single person from the subcontinent dining here at the lunch buffet, and a taste of the food reveals why. The buffet hews to an Americanized style that sends the flavors of India to a watery grave. A tomato soup tastes more Italian than Indian, with hints of oregano and basil. Vindaloo, one of the world's great cultural hybrid dishes -- born of the mingling of Goan cuisine and Portuguese spice traders -- is flavorless. Even chicken tikka masala, the ubiquitous crowd-pleaser, is swamped in thin gravy that renders the meat merely wet rather than coated in thick yogurt and spices.
A beef mango is bizarrely sweet, the tough beef drowning in a substance that might be better for dipping eggrolls in, or as the base for an Indian-inflected energy drink.
However, this same dilution treatment works marvels for the mushroom aloo: The mushroom caps are full and fresh rather than weary from their chafing dish. Likewise, the veggie korma is a flavorful star, as are a selection of fried items like crispy, flaky samosas and tasty pakora. The rice offerings are also notable, fluffy and aromatic, not steamy and tired. A fresh green salad section is accompanied by American dressings like ranch and French, although there is a quality yogurt-based raita that works instead. Naan bread is unfortunately also among the buffet items, rendering it rather greasy and limp -- exactly why other Indian buffets bring bread directly to the table.
All this would seemingly bode ill for dinner at Haveli, but the experience at night is remarkably different. Service (which is warm even by Indian buffet standards during the day) becomes positively doting at night. Your chair will be pulled out for you. Drink service will be swift, and the servers range between gregarious and charming.
After I inquired about the goat curry, my waiter gave a detailed description in which his eyes lit up and then took on a dreamy glaze at the thought of eating such a delicacy. With regard to the fish curries: "I am from Goa; this is the best dish!" he enthused. How can you not order it? A few more inquiries, which the waiter will answer frankly, and you'll know you're in good hands. Also recommended: tandoori mixed grill and garlic naan.
Mixed grill is an iconic dish of American suburbia, so much so that it is searingly employed by Jonathan Franzen in his novel The Corrections to mark a typical family's routine. The tandoori-ized version is a stroke of genius all the same. And mercifully, it is fantastic: succulent bits of chicken, lamb sausage, shrimp and fish properly spiced and partially blackened.
And the garlic naan is a phenomenon in itself: crispy, hot, garlicky, salty. The naan is ideal for soaking up the thick and flavorful gravies that emanate from the kitchen at night. If you ask for your food spicy, you'll be handsomely obliged: The Goan fish curry is poised on the edge, perfectly eye-watering and supremely flavorful. The goat curry turns out to be a sage recommendation, and arrives as savory hunks of tender goat (unusually, and pleasantly, almost boneless) in a rich, dark sauce.
Desserts, even a particularly enticing-sounding ice cream of saffron and almonds, are skippable. But if you're on the prowl for a table for two with platinum service and well-executed Indian dishes for dinner, Haveli is a welcome diversifying addition to the McKee Road dining corridor.