Impossible to resist: Tandoori chicken.
As restaurant challenges go, transforming an Indian spot into another Indian spot is about as easy as it gets. Restaurant consultant Anwar Zaidi and his wife, Reba, have enlisted the help of chef Dev Raj, who worked at both the east- and west-side locations of the former Maharaja. You might expect a little light redecoration to spiff the place up, maybe groovier Punjabi music, but obviously the buffet will go there, the tables here. The only questions most people are going to be asking are: Is the food better? How about the service?
And so it is with Tandoori House, which replaced Maharaja-west earlier this year. Odd half-finished details abound, and there’s a sense that the attention of Zaidi’s team has been directed at areas other than dining room presentation. But who cares if all the molly bolts sit flush against the drywall? Not me, because the food is comforting, satisfying on a primal level. I could be sitting in a ruin and it wouldn’t matter.
The lunch buffet is typical of Madison’s Indian restaurants in its dishes, but distinguished by some excellent preparations: plump grilled shrimp with peppers; seekh kardhai (ground chicken with onion and garlic, finished in the oven); palak paneer (homemade cheese and stewed spinach). “Aloo” slow-roasted turnip with potato and cumin was one of many vegetarian dishes at the buffet.
Daal makhni, black and red beans simmered in spice and sauce, is smoky and subtle — it was my favorite vegetarian dish and one of the most interesting and flavorful dishes in the entire buffet.
Chunks of fish, lightly seasoned and perfectly seared, are served with sliced red bell peppers and white onions. Westerners don’t always like eating raw onions (unless they’re on a cheeseburger), but here it feels right to chow down on the slivers of raw white onions like they’re Fritos.
Desserts are fun at the buffet. In a refreshing switch-up, there’s strawberry ice cream, with a bolder taste than I expected, along with the standard mango. The gulab jamun (doughnut-like dumplings in sweet cardamom syrup) and gajar halwa (shredded carrots in milk pudding with raisins and whipped cream) make for a varied array of sweet stuff.
Dinners are enormous, so choose wisely. I always benchmark an Indian restaurant by asking for spicy beef vindaloo, “as hot as you can make it.” Not once in Madison have I ever had my tongue seared, or even really challenged, but I’m pretty sure that’s because we are living in the land of bland flavors. If the kitchen fires up the spices, I imagine people just return the dish, and the restaurant loses money. At any rate, the vindaloo here was neither too spicy nor without kick, but nowhere near “my head is on fire.”
Chicken tikka masala, a good dinner choice, also won the approval of one representative of the notoriously fickle 13-year-old demographic. Fresh herbs and spices made tandoori chicken impossible to resist. Goat curry with tomatoes, cumin and coriander was the only misfire, stringy even by the standards of that rangy animal.
While some of the appetizers (like the bland samosas) were not remarkable, one unusual dish lit up all five zones on the tongue like a ball caroming through a classic pinball game. The Pakistani dish chapli kababis Peshawari (minced beef kebabs) was the unexpected hero of the menu — truly spicy, with a complex, earthy kick and slow-burning heat. When leftovers were resurrected from the fridge, these patties were very good cold, too. This was a daily special, but is available regularly as part of the kebab platter.
There are some screws to bolt down, some details to attend to, and while it’s troublesome that the team hasn’t smoothed off all the edges this long after opening, the food is so good that it doesn’t matter very much. The proof is in the rice pudding: Both the service and the food (especially the Pakistani dishes, like halheem and nihari) are a notch above Maharaja. Level up!
6713 Odana Rd., 608-833-1824, tandoorihousemadison.com,
11:30 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm daily, $6-$16, with combination dinners up to $44.