Go beyond the classic curries with spicy chicken winglets.
Breakfast in India for travelers can be a troubling affair. If you don't eat on the street or at a modern-style café, the hotel you are staying in will most likely offer a schizo blend of western foods and local cuisine. Badly scrambled eggs share the plate with curry; jelly and naan bread become unhappy companions.
This cognitive-culinary breakfast dissonance can luckily be avoided by eating idli. Idli are bland, white, steamed rice and lentil cakes formed in a mold and eaten with chutney and sambar. They are a south Indian breakfast staple, but appear over much of the subcontinent.
Developing a taste for idli means not only freedom from awkward translations of Euro breakfast foods, but full immersion -- it's amazing how many Western travelers cling to granola and dairy. It proves that breakfast habits may be among the most deeply held cultural codings we have.
Minerva Indian Cuisine is hidden away in the car-culture sprawl of west Madison/Middleton's commercial park. The restaurant impressively offers six types of idli preparations — chili, Manchurian, fried, etc. — more than enough to initiate the curious and satiate the nostalgic. I like them with vada, a kind of savory fried doughnut that provides a crisp texture foil to the springy idli cakes. The combo, with sambar and chutney, is perfect for lunch.
Minerva's specialty is the food of Hyderabad, the capital of the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The food of this diverse region — a mix of influences from the Persians, Turks, Mughals and British — is full of spices and pickles, rice and meats. This is the home of biryani. Mutton features prominently, as do coconut and tamarind.
Hyderabad is a modern technology and financial hub; former residents frequently pop up in cities like Madison for work. A sizable Hyderabadi expat community here keeps Minerva's dining room hopping.
A lunchtime buffet offers a number of usual suspects like chicken tikka masala, spinach paneer and tandoori chicken commonly found at Indian buffets. But significantly, there is a plethora of less typical dishes. A rousing version of samosa chat (triangular filled pastries) with chana masala (cold garbanzo bean topping) is as lively and fresh as anything found on the streets of India. Malai kofta, little vegetarian dumplings in a thick sauce, are likewise flavorful and not gluey. A chicken biryani is appropriately arid and fluffy with bits of flavorful caramelized meat.
As if to underline the Minerva difference, the buffet is accompanied by complementary baskets of soft paratha bread instead of naan.
Other surprising highlights from the buffet include the appetizer cut mirchi or chopped-up pepper fritter (think maximally crispy jalapeño popper minus the cream cheese) and a knockout okra fry. This spicy stir-fry of okra and peanuts is a flavor and texture revelation.
Three soups included sambar, a clean chicken soup, and a hot and sour soup that is a cousin of the classic Chinese restaurant version.
Dinner begins with crispy papadam accompanied by sweet tamarind sauce, cilantro-coconut chutney and onion-chili chutney.
Aside from Hyderabadi specials, there are Tamil dishes as well as a few from Malabar and Pakistan. Also represented are Indo-Chinese hybrid classics. When the British employed Indians for the construction of the Chinese railroad — and vice versa — a fusion cuisine was born that combines the best of both. Chili chicken is a standout among these, as well as the Drums of Heaven, which could qualify as Madison's best spicy fried chicken legs: sticky, sweet, crunchy, tender, fiery.
For lovers of dosa, those thin, crispy rice and lentil flour pancakes, Minerva amazingly offers nearly 20 kinds, as well as the semolina flour-based rava dosa. There are also 12 types of naan, along with paratha, roti and poori — all worth trying.
Exploration of this monster menu has led to consistently impressive results. Lamb mango is tender, flavorful lamb in a thick, satisfying sauce that is both sweet and sour. Hyderabadi mutton pepper fry, described as goat (which it is), is a spectacular, non-gamy version. Shrimp moilee is large, succulent prawns in a balanced coconut gravy. Goan fish curry, which presumably sports tilapia, is crispy and flaky, not soggy and chewy.
There is a truly hefty list of vegetarian dishes available among the appetizers, curries and Indo-Chinese specials. This menu could bolster vegetarian dining-out prospects considerably.
A star is Gobi 65, a cauliflower version of the famous Tamil dish Chicken 65 (the origin of the name is disputed). This is deep-fried, breaded cauliflower in a spicy red sauce, and a well-executed classic.
Quality offerings with appropriately heavy spicing lend a home-cooked appeal to Minerva's food. Its lengthy list of South Indian dishes that have been either underrepresented locally, or not available at all, makes the restaurant's opening an elemental addition to Madison's dining landscape. Wonderfully attentive service rounds out the appeal.