Beef curry sounds simple but is complex and satisfying.
It wasn't long ago that Madison had no Indian restaurants at all. If that seems incredible, consider that right now Madison has no restaurant serving sub-Saharan African cuisine. (This is, if not exactly a travesty, disappointing.)
The last year and a half has brought a boom in the food of the subcontinent, though, with Dhaba, Minerva and Swad opening. While Mirch Masala on the Square recently closed, Haveli is set to open in Fitchburg, so we're still plus three.
These have otherwise been on the west/southwest side of town, so Swad's appearance on Monona Drive is welcome. Within this one-mile stretch you can already feast at restaurants devoted to Japanese, Jamaican, Mexican (several of these) or Italian food, Southern barbecue or pancakes. The most difficult question for the occasional visitor is which to choose, though if you live in the neighborhood, just rotate through.
Swad's owners have created a gracious contemporary dining room out of a blah strip-mall space, with dark woods and jewel-tone paint, a small bar up front and the steam tables for the buffet sequestered in the rear.
There's certainly enough to like at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet (especially for $10). The format inevitably sabotages samosa and pakora and dosa, as they grow soggy or dry out. But I found more than enough to keep me happy, starting with the rasam, the brothy, sour, tamarind/tomato-based soup from southern India. The rasam was the hottest (in terms of spice) of anything I ate at Swad, and it was good. It cleared the head, let's say.
Meatless offerings were the star of the buffet. The dal tarka and sambar, both lentil-based stews, were flavorful and well spiced (though not hot, and it would make more sense to wait to have the rasam until after these milder dishes). The broccoli Manchurian, not on the regular menu but a sibling to the cauliflower Manchurian (which is), was a good representative of this Indo-Chinese hybrid dish. Manchurian dishes combine a soy/tomato sauce over a lightly battered and fried vegetable to create a sweet-ish people-pleaser.
Also notable was the saag paneer, cubes of a very firm rendition of paneer in stewed spinach. Paneer, the fresh cheese that can often come across as having no taste at all, has a noteworthy tang at Swad.
Of the meat entrees, I'd go for the dependable chicken tikka masala. Less successful buffet items were a chicken momo dumpling (dry), the fish masala (the fish seemed spongy) and the aloo gobhi (a cauliflower and potato stew, too salty).
End the meal with a bang, though, with dessert. The refreshing kulfi, a very creamy pistachio ice cream, beat out the usual mango ice cream. And gulab jamun, the ubiquitous "fried ball" bobbing in a super-sweet syrup that often makes the orbs too soggy, converted me. I lucked into a fresh batch, which were more lively, like doughnuts right out of the fryer.
Still, the dishes cooked to order are better. With a freshly made vegetable pakora, the flavors of the component vegetables come through. The peshawari nan, bread stuffed with cashews, raisins, almonds, coconut and fennel seed, is a wonderful variation on the usual stuffed nans.
These appetizers ushered in a subtle beef curry in a light tomato-based sauce. The basmati rice was flavored nicely with cardamom pods (though on another visit, no cardamom in the rice).
Likewise the baingan bhartha, another staple dish on Indian menus, is bright with ginger and spices amplifying the flavor of the baked and mashed eggplant. It was, however, pretty greasy, as was the kadai chicken, a confusing dish with mostly dark-meat chicken cooked with big hunks of green pepper, broccoli and cauliflower.
The paneer makhani, made with the same cubes of homemade paneer as the saag paneer, again is a standout, in this instance paired with a masala-style creamy tomato sauce.
Finally the Swad's Special Biryani, basmati rice with shrimp, beef, lamb and chicken, and served with raita, was good (especially the beef and lamb), with generous helpings of all the proteins.
The menu, as is often the case at Indian restaurants, is massive, with over 150 items. There's tandoori, including salmon; many beef, seafood and goat curries; 22 vegetarian entrees; dosas and uthappams yet to try.
Spice levels tend to be on the mild side. A request for "hot" led to a dubious look from the waiter and me backing down to "okay, medium-hot," which played out in the dish in a way I would have termed "mild." A dish ordered "hot" came at a level I would call "medium," although obviously, that's subjective. If you're looking for heat, explain you're no novice -- and perhaps mention how much you liked the rasam.