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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Second to naan
Monroe Street's Taste of India is tasty

Taste of India
2623 Monroe St., Suite 150, 218-9200
11:30 am-3 pm (lunch buffet), 5-10 pm (dinner) every day. EntrÃes $10-$19. Parking lot in mall. Credit cards and check. Wheelchair accessible.

Monroe Street has never reached its culinary potential. Close to campus and in the middle of maybe Madison's most urbane neighborhood, or at least its best-traveled one, the street should be lined with global kitchens. But aside from a few landmarks like Michael's Frozen Custard, the standout lunch deli Relish, and some consistently good places that deserve credit for community service alone (a.k.a. Dardanelles), Monroe can't claim to be any kind of gourmet destination.

At least the opening of Taste of India, in the strip mall across from Bluephies and Temple Beth El (added attraction: my confirmation class picture starring ' a big shout out ' Morrie, Marsha, some sluggish blintzes and the pride bar mitzvah boy even then, Russ Feingold) contributes some real dining clout to the area.

A few preliminary warnings. Don't go for the decor; there isn't much, and the strip-mall setting sets the stripped-down tone. Don't go for the lunch smorgasbord if you're a binge eater; you'll binge. And don't confuse the chicken makhani for a butter chicken; it comes in a soupy, alarmingly red sauce that could pass for a bowl of Campbell's tomato bisque, and it qualifies as the worst entrÃe on the menu. And don't expect much more than standard-issue vegetable pakora, which are described as fritters but feature enough batter to pass as meatless corn dogs, or that doughy samosa that surfaces in too many Indian restaurants.

Those are all my caveats. Everything else Taste of India has to offer is good, and sometimes very good. The real sign this is a reliable Indian restaurant is the state of its naan. Forget those chewy, pita-like sheets that too many restaurants dish up. Taste's naan, fresh-baked in the tandoor oven, comes out pillowy, crisped around the edges, and seductive. It's perfect for scooping up curry sauce or folding in your chicken tandoori. And the variations are a meal in themselves. The keema naan doesn't just contain a smear of something meaty. It comes stuffed with rich, tender ground lamb. Even better: the sun-dried tomato cilantro naan, which works well as an elegant appetizer.

Among entrÃes, the tandoori mixed grill is everything it should be. The big, heaped platter has chicken, shrimp, salmon and minced lamb that stream out of the clay tandoor oven sizzling and spitting juice, and everything on the plate has a delicate, perfumed flavor (except the slightly fishy salmon). The lamb mango, a real surprise, features tender cubes of lamb in a sweet-and-sour mango sauce that at first tastes overpowering and then reveals a subtle, fruity aftertaste.

If the restaurant, though, has one peerless dish ' the one you should order if you're just ordering one ' it's the house rendition of korma. It doesn't really matter which korma. You can order the shrimp korma, featuring big, sweet shrimp that pop in your mouth. You can order the vegetable korma thick with green beans, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower. Or you can order the chicken shahikorma (don't be thrown by the shahi; it's still korma). All come robed in a saffron yellow cream sauce that is simultaneously delicately flavored and very rich ' a feat in itself ' and roused by crushed cashews that add an occasional crunch and the necessary texture.

This is the kind of addictive sauce that defines a good curry, and it's what will bring you back to Taste of India any time you get a curry craving. Dunk your naan in that korma and Monroe Street will even look, for a split second, like a real gourmet hub.

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