Tandoori House highlights aromatic flavors of India
Chefs of North Indian cuisine have spent centuries developing the recipes that comprise foods from that region of the subcontinent. This explains how they achieve the rich and complex flavors of the dishes we enjoy today, and one of the best places to find those flavors in Madison is at Tandoori House on Odana Road.
The restaurant opened last year in the building that formerly was home to Maharaja Indian Restaurant. The owners of Tandoori House spent about six months redesigning the restaurant and creating a menu that features dishes from North India and a few from Pakistan.
The dining room is large, open and comfortable, with beige walls and nicely spaced tables. Each has a white linen tablecloth beneath glass, with linen napkins and flower arrangements.
A lunch buffet sits in a back room so the more elegant main dining areas are void of clutter. The restaurant also has a full-service bar that's off to one side of the interior. The lunch buffet is reportedly very good, according to Madison newspaper accounts.
A friend and I visited Tandoori House recently and were impressed with the aromatic dishes and the friendly, courteous service. A couple of the entrees we ordered were delicious, reasonably priced and came in large portions. And the kitchen's appetizers and desserts didn't disappoint.
Our meal began with a server bringing a bowl of toasted pita cubes and a creamy dipping sauce called makhana—ground garlic, ginger, allspice, chili, cumin, black pepper, bay leaf and tomatoes cooked in butter. When asked, the server simply described it as butter sauce. But a chef who visited our table later to inquire about the food went into more detail about the ingredients after we raved about its flavor.
For an appetizer, you can't go wrong with samosa chaat ($4 small; $8 large), a sweet and tangy street food that features a vegetable-filled pastry on a plate topped with chickpeas, freshly cubed tomatoes and red and green onions in a sweet-and-sour yogurt sauce, garnished with cilantro.
The small is plenty for two to share, while a large order would pretty much be a meal in itself.
We also sampled the regular samosas (two for $5): triangular fried pastries filled with spiced vegetables or meat. The flour pastries, flavored with Indian spices, are brought to life by a sweet tamarind sauce and a spicy sauce of mint, jalapeno and cilantro.
At a server's suggestion, we checked out and would recommend a couple of bottled beers from India: Taj Mahal, an American lager, and Flying Horse, an American pale lager (both $8 for 22 ounces).
The restaurant takes its name from the traditional Indian clay oven known as a tandoor. So it seemed sensible to check out the signature dish, tandoori, which takes meat that has been marinated overnight and roasts it in the cylindrical oven. A choice of chicken, lamb, beef, salmon or shrimp is served sizzling in a piping-hot skillet over onions and peppers, with a choice of rice or the Indian bread naan.
Chicken tandoori ($14) serves up a generous portion of spicy meat, with hints of ginger, garlic, coriander and cayenne, and garam masala (a combination of roasted and ground cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper). As you might expect, it exudes a strong and savory flavor.
As delicious as the tandoori dish was, the kitchen's vegetable biryani ($13) was even better. It comes with raita (a yogurt-based sauce with cucumber and cilantro), and it's the very best of Indian cuisine.
The aromatic dish features basmati rice and mixed veggies cooked in an onion and tomato base of cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper corn, cloves, turmeric and red peppers, garnished with nuts and raisins.
The restaurant offers six desserts, two of which are built around ice cream. We passed on those and instead chose one of the pudding dishes, kheer ($4)—a rice pudding with nuts, raisins and the light aroma of cardamom. The gulab jamun ($4) features a doughnut-like dumpling served in sweet cardamom syrup.
The wait staff at Tandoori House is helpful and friendly. The timing of the dishes was a bit off at times, and there were periods when we couldn't get a server's attention. But overall, our meal was terrific and so was the service.
If you're a fan of fine Indian food, this is a restaurant that's worth going out of your way to experience.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.