Chicken secuwa comes from the Nepali portion of the menu.
Now that Madison has a nicely filled-out dance card of Indian restaurants, how do diners choose? Should they make tracks to the one with the best food? The one with the largest menu? The one with the lowest prices? The one that's closest to where they happen to be?
A problem with choosing Indian restaurants, or reviewing them for that matter, is that they tend to have voluminous menus with entrees that might vary considerably in quality. You could head to Minerva for dosa, for instance, Swad for paneer, Swagat for curries. Ultimately, you're either willing to travel the distance for quality or favor heading to whichever is nearest. Or, more likely, you'll rely on some internal calculus that balances distance and quality. That may be how you end up eating at Mirch Masala -- and depending on what you order, it may be how you end up not eating there again.
Mirch Masala was originally located on the Capitol Square; in 2014, it closed and then reopened in more modest digs at the site of the former Redamte coffee house. It's on the second floor of that double-decker shopping triangle at the corner of State, Broom and Gilman, where the cement steps are starting to crumble in places -- be careful out there. Inside, the room is rustic/cheerful, with big windows, dark wood floor, deep green walls and plenty of vibrant art from the subcontinent.
The lunch buffet at Mirch Masala has been downsized. I know, it sounds like typical American whining, because there's more than enough here to sate a diner for the rest of the day. But there are fewer choices than when Mirch Masala was on the Square, and even then it was a much more modest array than offered at Maharani, downtown's other noontime Indian buffet.
Here American salad joins appetizers, one soup (a one-note dal when I was last there), naan (pretty good for sitting in a steam tray) and a couple meat and a few vegetable-only entrees.
Of the appetizers, only the samosa were worthwhile -- crisp exterior with a mild potato interior. Three varieties of pakora were soggy and flavorless.
The chicken tikka masala was mild and too sweet, and the meat was rubbery. But the lamb curry was quite good -- tender meat, with a spicy brown gravy that had some depth. There's also a platter of tandoori chicken most days.
Of the vegetable entrees, the bhindi masala, a curry-spiced vegetable medley with okra, was the best pick, with big chunks of yellow pepper. The cauliflower dish aloo ghobi was marred by hunks of onion that should have been chopped smaller and too-chewy carrots. Still, if you follow the buffet principle of "take a little of everything; go back for more of what you liked," you'll do okay.
The full menu includes a wide-ranging selection of curries, biryani, two dosas and dishes from the tandoor. Mirch Masala bills itself as serving Indian and Nepali cuisine, but Nepali dishes are few.
The beef masala was fine, generous with tender beef, but again, that too-sweet sauce. The chicken saag was unusual -- dryish, lacking the spinach gravy and instead just flecked with bits of spinach. While I could appreciate the chicken-to-spinach ratio, I missed the flavor of the spinach, presumably why someone would order chicken saag in the first place.
Those who remember the secuwa (Nepali kebabs) from the now closed State Street restaurant Chautara will find the dish much different here. The chicken is again oddly rubbery, accompanied by sautéed vegetables that are gloppy and greasy, with some appearing to be from a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. The tofu secuwa is not only unlike what used to be served at Chautara, it's not even as good as what used to be served at Mirch Masala when it was on the Square. Gone is any hint of char from a grill; the tofu was spongy and tasted terrible.
It is, however, difficult to resist a dumpling, and the good news is, you don't have to. Mirch Masala serves two varieties of momo, the Tibetan steamed dumpling. While they're not like Himal Chuli's legendary peanut-inflected version, and the accompanying achaar sauce tastes more like marinara than it should, they're satisfying. The mildly spiced vegetarian momo is filled with a mash of potato, cabbage and carrot; the chicken dumpling is filled with a coriander-inflected ground chicken. Pile on some chutneys or ask for the yogurt sauce for dipping, and at least you'll be starting your meal on the right foot.