A decade ago, we were just grateful to have two Indian restaurants in town - the west-side Maharajah and Madison Masala, where MMoCA now stands. Before that, we had only the on-again off-again Mount Everest; it closed in '94.
Now there are more than a handful (nine, if you count combo spots like Campus Biryani & Gyros and Curry in the Box; even more if you include the Tibetan spots). Like Indian restaurants across the U.S., most here stage all-you-can-eat noontime buffets. If there is a way to induce an American to try Indian food, just trot out the words "all you can eat" and watch the line form. One trip to the lunch wagon for cultural tourism, two trips for gluttony.
Diners don't always get the best of the kitchen from a buffet, but when the average Jill looks at a $10 price tag for soup, bread, multiple appetizers, entrees and desserts, versus paying $13 for one dish of chicken biryani at dinner, the Black Friday gene kicks in.
And honestly, I don't find what's coming out of most of the Indian kitchens at dinner to be so superior to what's on their lunch buffets that it makes the tradeoff worth it. Two years ago, when Sunil Gopal was running his Spice Yatra food cart on the Square, I could look at spending $7 for one plate of his kadai chicken versus spending $8 for the unlimited buffet at Flavor of India and pick Spice Yatra every time, because the flavors rocked so hard. With Spice Yatra gone now, it kind of doesn't matter to me anymore. Bring on the buffet line.
Mirch Masala is Madison's newest Indian restaurant, taking over from Flavor of India in the same Capitol Square space. Mirch Masala (the name means "fresh ground red chili powder") also features some Nepalese dishes; one of the chef-owners used to cook at Chautara.
The buffet doesn't highlight the menu's Tibetan side; only the mumari (fried mung bean patties) usually show up. Super-crisp, they're like a Tater Tot made from mashed beans.
Mirch's spread is a mix of hits and misses. The vegetable pakora were awful overfried shredded crisps. Small pieces of fried fish were marginal. The vegetable biryani was without much flavor, while the chicken kabob was dry, with a spice paste that looked to be spread on the surface, rather than marinated.
What dishes would tempt me back for seconds? The beef vindaloo, with a deep red-brown gravy, super-tender cubes of rich beef and equally tender pieces of potato, infused with the flavors of the sauce; this had a decent kick. I'd also spoon up more of the baingan bartha, an eggplant stew, which was a sweeter and creamier version of the dish than usual.
There are usually four or five vegetable entrees on the line. A vegetable masala, with potato, cauliflower and peas, was very well cooked and spiced to medium. The alloo chana, though, flopped, with flavorless chickpeas in a too-mild tomato sauce. The buffet's soups, the times I've visited, have been vegetable and chicken vegetable - satisfying in their own way, but how about a dal or a rasam or a mulligatawny?
To try a few Nepalese favorites, I ordered from the menu. Momochas, the steamed vegetable dumplings that are legendary from Himal Chuli, should continue to be ordered from Himal Chuli. Missing are the peanut notes, the aromatic spices and the tomato coriander sauce. These momochas were gummy and filled with a sobering chop of cabbage and probably kale, served with a tomato-colored sauce that didn't contribute much flavor.
Tofu secuwa, a grilled vegetarian kebab that's done well at Chautara, is a little different here - there's a generous side of stir-fried vegetables, but no rice. There are fewer grilled green peppers and onions from the kebab, and while the tofu itself is nicely charred, it's missing flavor from the marinade. Considering that most elements of this dish taste better at Chautara (and there it comes with a choice of salad or dal), it's hard to make the argument for Mirch on this score, either.
Ultimately, most buffet items and other Indian dishes from the menu were acceptable, and far from terrible, like what I had at the now-defunct Turmeric on Odana Road. If you're on the Square and trying to decide between Mirch Masala and Maharani, you'll do fine at either. Four blocks away at Maharani on West Wash at Broom, the cost is the same for a larger spread with faster turnover. If you can manage the walk, take the trip. If you can't manage the walk...you probably shouldn't be heading toward an all-you-can-eat buffet.