The Republic of India is home to 1.13 billion people, 28 states and more than 1,600 dialects. India's cuisine includes some of the most diverse and subtle cooking in the world. Yet by dint of its success (in 2003, there were more than 10,000 restaurants serving Indian food in the United States), its export has resulted in a rather extreme homogenization of many disparate styles into a clichéd version of the actual cuisine. "Indian food - curry, right?"
To the unschooled Westerner, Indian food is a monolithic entity that comes with some kind of puffy bread, lots of chutneys, is served on a banquet table and ends with an opportunity to eat mango ice cream.
Flavor of India is the third Indian restaurant in Wisconsin by brothers/co-owners/ chefs Devinder Singh Badwal and Sital Singh and the second in Madison, following their Taste of India on Monroe Street. This latest entry gives Madisonians an opportunity to study the nuances of north Indian cuisine (though major regional styles are all represented on the dinner menu).
North Indian cuisine is similar to Pakistani cuisine and traffics much more heavily in dairy products than neighboring regions. Throughout India, garam masala is the base of most dishes and can contain more than a dozen spices; in the north, the most common spices are saffron, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, curry leaves, black pepper and turmeric. Chili and ginger tend to determine the heat of garam masala. The blend of spices is made into a paste by adding ghee (clarified butter). This mixture is often augmented in the north by the addition of yogurt and paneer (farmer cheese) to make sauces and gravies, which are much thicker and richer than their counterparts from other regions as a consequence.
The best deal for lunch is the buffet. Beef dopiaza is terrific on a cold day: chunks of tender, seasoned beef in a succulent preparation of tomatoes, onions and thick gravy. Karhi pakora is made by rolling balls made of chickpea flour and frying them in vegetable oil, then serving in yogurt sauce - this classic north Indian interplay between savory and sour is an excellent example of the regional style Flavor of India showcases. The chicken tandoori isn't entirely free of gristle, but it's flavorful enough. Dahi wada are tasty daal-battered fritters. Salad, yogurt dressing, hot sauces and chutneys are provided to tie it all together.
Dinner is a slightly more formal affair; the evening buffet, originally offered, is no longer available. Individual dishes are served with rice and pappadom (lentil wafers) with three sauces. When choosing appetizers, consider the fish pakora. These are boneless, skinless filets marinated in yogurt and lemon, then fried. Subtly tangy, it's another classic north Indian dish.
Of course there's naan, yeast-leavened bread cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). Flavor of India's extensive naan selection ranges from onion and black pepper kulcha to cheese naan (a practically surefire hit with Wisconsin kids).
Start with chicken tikka masala, the house specialty (the recipe dates back to a 1984 innovation Badwal made in a Boston kitchen). The chicken is roasted and prepared with a thick curry sauce; a delicate interplay of flavors comes from the perfectly balanced mix of chicken and the garam masala.
The lamb curry is satisfying but unremarkable, the biggest disappointment. There are some mild spice undertones at work in the sauce, but the meat is overcooked and chunky, making consumption awkward.
The chicken vindaloo is a different story. Order this with hot spices: the savory interplay of red wine vinegar, garlic-stewed chicken and chili pepper is addictive. This was everyone's favorite dish out of the many we sampled.
The dining room is decorated with colorful paintings of Indian deities and done in oranges and purples. Service is solicitous and stays very much in the background, perhaps to a fault. We didn't have to fight crowds during either our lunch or dinner visits, but I hope Flavor of India is successful, as north Indian cuisine is an excellent complement to the burgeoning restaurant scene on the Square. And oh, that vindaloo!