Buddhism places value on the concept of moderation and temperance known as the Middle Path. You might think of it as a "happy medium," which also happened to be the name of the former hi-fi store on State Street that's given way to Madison's latest Himalayan restaurant, Taste of Tibet. And generally Taste of Tibet follows through on that concept, smoothing out its rough spots with moments of surprising quality and value.
When the topic of Tibetan food comes up, so does yak. The question of whether or not yak meat is served is apparently common enough that Taste of Tibet has addressed the issue on the front page of its website. Basically, no yak.
Turns out it's not that easy to get in Madison. The same is true of yak butter (which comes from the dri, or female yak). But Taste of Tibet promises an honest portrayal of Tibetan cuisine from A to Z even so (with the exception of Y).
You may be asking yourself, "Don't we have two Tibetan restaurants on State Street already?" The answer is, "Not exactly." Both Chautara and Himal Chuli serve food representative of the same central Asian highlands as Tibet, but focus on Nepali cuisine. One major difference here is Tibet's climate, which precludes rice crops; their main grain is barley, and many dishes are made with barley flour.
Taste of Tibet's comfortably modest interior is mirrored by an appropriately restrained menu. Soups, salads, noodle dishes and dumplings represent a cuisine that's neither Chinese nor Indian.
The simple starter menu includes spring rolls, wontons and a distinctly spicy curried potato dish. The tsel pakora - fried vegetable and chickpea flour pancakes - are crispy and savory; the accompanying tomato-based house sauce is a pleasant addition. Tomato also provides the base for gonga thang, a break from the conventions of egg drop soup. Chunks of tomato liven up what can be an unctuous dish.
The rest of the menu is beef-heavy, perhaps filling in for all the places you might have found yak otherwise. But whether you choose the Taste of Tibet drang salad with beef, red onion, tomato and cucumber, or the phing sha, a mix of beef, clear bean thread noodles, black mushrooms, spinach and potato, you'll find fresh, colorful vegetables. On one visit, near the end of the day, we could hear the rhythmic chopping of veggies clear through 9:30 p.m., a good sign.
Dishes here are fairly straightforward. The tsel gyathuk, a noodle/soup hybrid with mixed vegetables and tofu, is the ideal vegetarian replacement for chicken noodle soup. If you like beef with peppers, the sha khatsa gives you beef and peppers, but with a shot of ginger and heat; that the pan-fried beef is a little tough is unfortunate, but not unexpected.
I say that the dishes are straightforward, but the names aren't. Bashful diners should be prepared to meet with kindly encouragement to just give the Tibetan names a try, rather than using the accompanying number. (The menu is imperfectly written and printed, so there's a small chance you'll be working off a typo. The delicious #18, a bowl of beef, rich broth and daikon, is called gutse drilthuk, not "guste" as written.)
There's a pleasant amount of imperfection at Taste of Tibet, particularly woven throughout a level of service I'd call "sweet." The staff won't amaze you with crisp delivery and extensive wine pairing knowledge. But they'll make you feel at home without coming off as unprofessional.
In a town that holds such an unexpectedly strong relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it feels right that there's a nice little Tibetan restaurant in town. Takeout (and leftovers, of course) are packed well, the prices are appropriate, and the ingredients are fresh. The food is filling and often a bit starchy - especially the must-try steamed buns, shaped like doughy clouds - as should be expected from a mountainous and unforgiving homeland.
But to balance that out, Taste of Tibet also makes a killer banana lassi: light, fresh and, like the restaurant, the only one in town.