180301CHUTNEYS

During a recent visit to Chutney’s Indian Cuisine in Madison, Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick and a group of friends ordered dishes that included this biryani—a big bowl of basmati rice flavored with cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, coriander, mint, ginger, garlic and onions. Diners can add chicken, shrimp, vegetables or egg, if they choose.

Bill Livick photo

MADISON

There are lots of Indian restaurants in the Madison area, but none whose food is much better than Chutney’s Indian Cuisine on the city’s far-east side near East Towne Mall.

The restaurant opened last fall in a building designed for a fast-food operation, and that’s Chutney’s’ biggest shortcoming—its ambience. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the restaurant’s interior (while shiny and clean) holds even less appeal. With standard synthetic materials used to build prefabricated tables and booths, the restaurant is too brightly lit—which only highlights that this is not an attractive dining room.

But Chutney’s is right on the mark with other things that we look for in a good restaurant—food quality, price and service.

The restaurant specializes in southern Indian cuisine, but recipes from northern India and mainland Southeast Asia (or “Indo-China,” as printed on the menu) also are represented. That means lots of rice, dosas and flavorful stews that are popular in the south share a menu with northern foods such as kebabs, naan and curry dishes. The menu also offers noodle dishes, fried rice and spicy, batter-fried items that are common beyond the Indian subcontinent.

A couple of friends and I were pleased with the quality and quantity of food during a recent visit, as well as with Chutney’s’ attentive service. That said, one who drove from Janesville felt the restaurant’s lack of ambience disqualified it from being considered a destination. He’s probably right that, unless you truly love Indian cuisine, it would be hard to justify driving an hour one way to get here.

Chutney’s’ menu isn’t as exhaustively long as what you might find at some Indian restaurants, but there’s still plenty to choose from.

Our party of three sampled a few appetizers and agreed a plate of samosas ($4.99) was the best option. A sort of savory pastry, three samosas are stuffed with spiced potato and peas and served with homemade chutney.

We also checked out a plate of battered and deep-fried chunks of chicken, Chicken 007 ($9.99), and a similar appetizer of battered and fried fish, Appolo fish (also $9.99). The fish is served with onions, green chilies and yogurt sauce, and the chicken is sautéed with cashews, onions, chilies and spices. The dishes were flavorful, but the meats were too dry.

Like any good Indian restaurant, Chutney’s offers several varieties of the flatbread known as naan. An order of naan ($2.99) that came layered with garlic and cilantro was superb: freshly baked, warm, tender, buttery and savory.

For main courses, the chicken tikka masala ($13.99) was a delight. Grilled chicken sautéed with fenugreek leaves, onion and bell pepper is cooked in a rich tomato-and-onion-based gravy and served with basmati rice.

Also terrific is the kitchen’s biryani ($11.99), a big bowl of basmati rice flavored with cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, coriander, mint, ginger, garlic and onions. Diners have a choice of adding chicken, shrimp, vegetables or egg to the fluffy, perfectly prepared and delicious rice.

A plate of shrimp simmered with shallots, onion, tomato and homemade spices makes a dish called rayalaseema royyala vepudu ($14.99) come to life. The shrimp were plump, tender and very tasty, although I found the level of spiciness (medium) to be a bit much for my palate.

Service at Chutney’s is very good, with servers checking often on the level of heat and quality of the food.

Unfortunately, the restaurant does not serve alcoholic beverages. A glass of wine would have been a nice with the meal. A server mentioned the owners have applied for a liquor license and are going through the city’s approval process.

We had intended to pass on dessert and were surprised when a server brought small bowls of rice kheer—a creamy mix of almonds, rice and milk-based ingredients with a hint of saffron and butter—and a carrot pudding cooked with butter, pistachios, almond and cardamom. That sort of extra care and attention typifies the friendly service at Chutney’s.

Its unattractive dining room notwithstanding, the restaurant serves fine food in generous portions. If you should happen to be on Madison’s far-east side, or if you just really love Indian cuisine, I would recommend Chutney’s any day of the week.

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

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