Beef chapli kabab, minced and spice beef, has a real kick.
Indian food is wildly popular worldwide, though Madison has been a bit slow to the party. That appears to be changing, especially on Madison’s far west side and in Middleton, where the beachhead Swagat has recently been joined by Minerva and the excellent Dhaba. And there’s a new kid on the block, Amber Indian Cuisine.
Located in a mini-mall, the restaurant’s interior seems designed to calm. The burgundy and cream color palette with yellow track lighting and flowers as accent notes is well conceived and classy. Drop ceilings and partitions of Indian design lend notes of the East. A series of elegant black-and-white photographs line one wall and colorful paintings depicting trees and fields adorn another. The full bar seems underused (the clientele skews heavily non-Caucasian, and adherent Muslims do not drink alcohol) but adds texture to the room, with the buffet area to its right.
As with many Indian restaurants, the focus is on the buffet. This one runs three tables deep, with a wide variety of dishes that change every day. (Kids get half price on the buffet during lunch, making it an economical proposition for parents).
Chicken tikka masala was everyone’s favorite: hearty tomato sauce, subtle flavor combinations, tender hunks of chicken roasted in a tandoori oven. Lamb curry, with ginger, onions and garlic, had a lot of fat and bone, but was tender enough. A giant heated plate had fried fish on a Thursday (bland and forgettable), but an excellent garlic-fried shrimp (dusted with spices and heavy on the garlic) on a Saturday.
Beef chapli kabab is minced and spiced beef, like a burger patty. It had a real kick and can be dunked in tamarind chutney for a kaleidoscopic taste sensation. Hyderabadi dum chicken biriyani was exemplary. The subtle flavors of the Mughal and Andhra regions of India are blended for the sauce; the chicken is layered with basmati rice and steamed in a tightly sealed dish.
Vegetarians will like the dal makhani, four types of lentils simmered in chilies and garlic. Salad is simple and always the same: carrot wedges, sliced tomatoes, chopped cabbage, sliced cucumbers. It gets significantly more interesting when ladled with raita, a yogurt sauce.
Condiments include sliced lemons, garlic chili sauce and pickled cucumbers. Also available: a smoky tomato chutney, a refreshingly cool mint chutney, a mango chutney and a coconut chutney that does a good job cooling down the lamb curry.
At dinner, the lights are lower and jazz (Coltrane in one case) is playing. It’s busy, and you might have to wait, so a vinyl couch in view of a television, right near the bar, is your new home for a while. The dinner menu is à la carte, as the buffet is only open for lunch.
Fans of Indian cuisine usually have a dish they use as the standard by which to judge a restaurant. For me, that’s beef vindaloo, and I always ask for it extra-spicy. Amber’s version had just the right level of heat and spice. Kadai paneer (vegetarian) was exquisite, with dollops of Indian cheese in a broth of peppers and onions.
Crème caramel and homemade mango ice cream are the best dessert options.
Service is helpful during a quiet brunch, but servers didn’t have a lot to do beyond filling water glasses and clearing plates. On a recent Friday night, however, the restaurant was jammed, with an ever-larger group accumulating near the door waiting to be seated. The servers were also juggling take-out orders, which meant some diners got neglected. The table next to us waited 45 minutes to put their order in, were never asked about a second round of drinks after the initial order, and were so hard-pressed for a take-out container that I gave them one of ours.
It’s a good problem to have, but without better service, any good engendered by the excellent food will dissipate like smoke on a hot rock. Good service and good food are the underpinnings of a great restaurant experience, and this kitchen deserves better representation in the front of the house.
Amber Indian Cuisine
6913 University Ave., Middleton, 608-824-0324, amberindianmadison.com
11:30 am-3 pm (lunch buffet) and 5-10 pm daily, $5-$16