211004INDIA

The size of a baseball, the vegetable samosas at Madison’s Taste of India are stuffed with potatoes and peas. Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin reports they stay crispy and solid on the outside despite being soft and flavorful on the inside.

MADISON

As you would expect, most restaurants rely on their entrees—new specialties that either wow or old warhorses that keep customers coming back for years.

It’s far more rare to find the places that do everything well—the sort of spots where, given the quality of the food as a whole, you could construct a memorable meal from the other sections of the menu.

Taste of India is one of those places. It has been around Madison for nearly 15 years now, quietly enduring the upheavals of Monroe Street construction and the ongoing pandemic.

In pre-pandemic times, it was possible (and encouraged) to scope out the delights of the traditional northern Indian menu through the restaurant’s sizable lunch buffet. Now you’re forced to do the sampling construction yourself.

The good news? There’s almost no way to steer wrong.

Start, for instance, with some of the appetizers. Taste of India’s vegetable samosas ($3.95), which are stuffed to the gills with potatoes and peas. Almost baseball-sized, each one is crispy and solid on the outside while still soft and flavorful on the inside.

You might tell yourself to stop after two, but when you show restraint and do, you will still find a big chunk of your appetite already sated.

The same holds true for the pakora—deep-fried fritters featuring everything from veggies to shrimp, chicken and cheese.

You would expect these crispy concoctions of chickpea flour, which resemble vertical fried chicken fingers, to be the sort of bite-sized finger food you could polish off in seconds. Instead, each is a sizable monster—the kind of thing you might not finish in three bites.

It’s also the kind of thing that might have you saving your entrée to eat later.

Perhaps you’d prefer to tread the flatbread route. A great choice, given the naan bread here is spectacular.

There are 10—10!—different varieties to tempt you, and each delivers on the promise of its ingredients. A ginger-spiced naan ($3.95) doesn’t just contain faint hints of the pungent spice, it crackles with it. The same goes for the garlic naan.

The bread is sizable enough (think the size of a medium pizza) to serve a table of four or cover multiple meals. Spread some of Taste of India’s mint or onion chutney on a piece and you might not need to sample anything else. I wasn’t able to fit an order of the coconut naan into my recent visit, but you had better believe I’m going back for it soon.

One of the risks with ethnic cuisine is your choice might prove to be heavy on the cheap and basic carb (rice, noodles, etc.) and light on the more flavorful stuff you really wanted.

No worries about that at Taste of India. Case in point: The Taste of India Special ($17.95).

The menu promises “king-sized” pieces of spiced shrimp, chicken, beef and lamb on a bed of biryani rice. Sure enough, the sizable meat chunks are more than equal to the pile of rice, and the two elements complement each other effortlessly.

I opted for the mild version of this dish (the lowest of the three spice-level options) and found it to be just the right amount of heat. And the portion itself is also king-sized, so if you’re ordering for two, the leftovers might cover the better part of your week.

There’s no way to rate an Indian restaurant without discussing curry, and there’s a lot to talk about here. There are at least 10 different types available for each of the major meats or vegetables on the menu (think beef, lamb, chicken, seafood and veggies), spanning several types of spice and heat level.

The best among them is the mango curry ($13.95 to $16.95, depending on your meat choice), where the sweetness of the fruit dovetails nicely with the subtle spice of the curry. Plus, it just looks like a sunshine explosion on your plate with the thick orange sauce coating both the jasmine rice and the meat.

If the level of choice has your curry-loving head a little foggy, there are simple fixes on hand.

Opting for the tandoori mixed grill ($18.95) is one of the better ones. You’re met with a sizable plate of meats and vegetables cooked in a charcoal-based tandoori oven (think of it as a shish kebab without the shish). The shrimp and spiced sausage pair a little better with the grilled onions and peppers than the chicken does, but all that means is that you will have to be more deft with your silverware than your table mates.

Taste of India is only offering takeout during the pandemic, but there are a small handful of metal tables outside the restaurant for those who make their alfresco plans early.

Whether you’re enjoying your food in the sun on Monroe Street or in the comfort of your very own kitchen, one thing is for sure: You won’t regret your choice.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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