Restaurant review: Indian food worth the wait at Madison's Taj

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By Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
Thursday, July 21, 2016

MADISON—One of Madison's finest Indian restaurants is located in a nondescript strip mall along South Park Street.

The restaurant is easy to miss, but its rather bland exterior gives way to an attractive—almost luxurious—dining room inside. Dimly lit, very clean and comfortable, the restaurant features a spacious dining room with booths and tables. It offers good service and fine food with a menu that features recipes from both north and south India.

We began a recent meal there in traditional fashion, with a server setting crispy papadum and several chutneys before us.

Papadum—a thin, crisp wafer typically based on a seasoned dough made from black gram flour and seasoned with such spices as chili, cumin or garlic or black pepper—is served with three chutneys: a sweet tamarind sauce, mint chutney and onion-chili.

The restaurant offers eight appetizers, along with a few soups and salads.

As appetizers go, the kitchen's fish pakora ($5.95) is a winner: Tender pieces of boneless fish are marinated in yogurt and lemon juice, and then dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried. The pieces of fish (seven of them) are flaky and quite tasty.

Another appetizer, paneer pakora ($3.95), features homemade Indian semi-soft cubes of cheese stuffed with mint sauce, which are dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried. I enjoyed its subtle complexities, although my companion was put off by the dish's flavor.

We sampled a few types of naan—the traditional Indian bread that is baked in a clay oven, or tandoor. Taj offers 15 variations of the popular bread. Served in the size and shape of a pizza pie, both the cheese ($2.95) and the garlic naan ($2.95) are exceptional.

Taj's menu features a half-dozen tandoori specialties, more than 20 vegetarian specialties and dozens of dishes built around chicken, lamb, beef and seafood. There also are about a half-dozen basmati rice specialties.

My friend Lia was happy with an order of vegetables biryani ($11.95), a fragrant rice dish featuring vegetables sautéed with onions, garlic and ginger. The veggies are cooked with a blend of spices and garnished with cashews and raisins, and the dish is served with raita—a side of yogurt with chopped cucumber and spices.

The kitchen's tandoori chicken ($12.95) stood out as exceptionally flavorful and was served in an enormous portion. The tender chicken is marinated overnight in yogurt with fresh spices and barbecued over flaming holes in the tandoor. The result is some of the most succulent, flavorful chicken around. It is served with rice, chutneys and a rich curry sauce.

For dessert, a mango-flavored homemade ice cream ($2.95) hit the spot. It was both fresh and flavorful. The homemade pista kulfi ($2.95)—pistachio ice cream—also is a flavor treat not to be missed.

In the past, the restaurant's service has been spotty, but it was wonderful during our most recent visit. Our server was knowledgeable, friendly and attentive.

Taj is an attractive restaurant that is suitable for a casual meal or a special occasion. Food preparation takes a while, but it's worth the wait.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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