Swad adds Indian flavor to Madison area

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MONONA—With an emphasis on curries, as opposed to the rice and lentils of the south, the cuisine of northern India is inherently rich and warm—ideal for the winter months here in southern Wisconsin.

That's one reason we were excited to hear that a new restaurant focusing on the recipes of northern India had opened in early January.

Swad Indian Restaurant, which translates as “taste,” appears to be just a small storefront in a Monona strip mall. But walk through the front door, and the place opens into a good-sized dining room.

The decor is sparse except for a few attractive paintings, but the room is comfortable and feels elegant, with linen tablecloths and napkins and a friendly wait staff. More important, the food is reasonably priced and very good.

Looking around the busy dining room, you get the impression that Swad is a well-run operation. We learned from our server that the restaurant's owner and part-time chef, Madan Shrestha, has lots of restaurant experience. He ran Maharaja Indian Restaurant on Madison's west side for a decade before deciding to launch his own business on the east side.

We visited on a Saturday night and were surprised that the dining room was nearly full. Apparently, word of the kitchen's quality food travels fast.

While the focus is on northern Indian cuisine, Swad's menu is extensive and wide-ranging. It offers nearly a dozen tandoori oven specialties, more than a dozen chicken curry recipes and almost two dozen vegetarian options. Add to that eight beef curry dishes, a dozen lamb-curry and seafood-curry recipes, and it's hard to know where to begin ordering.

Menu options don't end there. You've also got a few goat-curry dishes and various other specialties, and Swad offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. daily.

As is customary with Indian restaurants, our server greeted us with a tray of three chutneys and a plate of papadam—thin, crispy wafer crackers made of lentils and spices.

My friend JP and I shared an appetizer of fish pakora ($5.95): boneless, skinless catfish dipped in chickpea batter and deep fried. The technique was actually more like flash frying, which allowed the fish retain its moisture and flavor. A few more minutes of frying might have helped it lose a somewhat slimy, unappetizing consistency, although my friend thought it was fine.

A plate of naan ($1.95), a fine white Indian bread, was baked in the tandoor clay oven and came to the table soft and steaming.

We sampled a cup of rasam soup ($2.95), a spicy and sour broth from southern India made of tamarind juice and tomato seasoned with chili pepper, black pepper, cumin and ginger.

The soup, naan and pakora were good appetizers, but our main courses made the trek to Monona worth the effort.

Entrees come with a serving of white basmati rice on the side. My friend opted for a main course from the vegetarian category, malai kofta ($11.95), which features vegetable balls cooked in a savory sauce with cashews, raisins, almonds and herbs. It was a delicious, complex blend of flavors with hints of red chili, ginger, garlic, garam masala, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and turmeric.

Another entree, lamb curry (or sag), was also terrific ($12.95). The chunks of tender lamb and fresh spinach were cooked with garlic, ginger, tomato and spices. Like most Indian recipes, this one includes lots of spices: coriander, cumin, cloves, green chili, turmeric and cardamom.

Our server was knowledgeable and happy to talk about the kitchen's preparation of various items.

The restaurant has a variety of Indian and domestic beers, along with a small list of red and white wines.

It also has several dessert options, all priced at $3.95: kheer (rice pudding with dried fruit), homemade mango ice cream, gulab jamun (dry milk and cheese balls fried and dipped in syrup) and mango lassi (a delicious mango smoothie yogurt drink).

Swad is a good place for people unfamiliar with Indian cuisine. The food is tasty. Spices are kept to an acceptable heat level. Servers are happy to explain the menu in detail. The restaurant is also conveniently located on Monona Drive and easy to reach from the Janesville area.

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