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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Dhaba Indian Bistro doesn't even need a buffet
Hello, thali

Credit:John Ladwig

It's easy to get lost in an Indian restaurant's menu, and Dhaba Indian Bistro in Middleton is no exception. The menu is a hefty tome - and the lunch menu is its own volume. There is no lunchtime buffet, just smaller portions and reduced prices on a menu only slightly shortened.

I've long wondered why Indian menus seem to be constructed in the most sprawling manner possible. They put forth a barrage of dish names largely unfamiliar to the Western lexicon, with barely a sentence fragment of description. It seems to me that the process is designed to generate a favorite dish that the diner returns to as much out of a sense of familiarity with the name as with the flavor.

Vindaloo and masala, tandoori and biryani - yes, your favorites are all here. Dhaba, which is the Indian term for what we might call a truck-stop diner, makes its own modifications to the typical Indian-American menu and is a sight more dressed-up than a truck stop. There's no vada (lentil fritters) and no moghlai (a creamy mushroom sauce preparation), but both can be found elsewhere around town.

Dhaba has that lunch menu, though, which is a true bargain. Every individual lunch item is $8 or less, and the weekend lunch thali special ("thali" can be loosely translated as "platter") is something to behold. Small servings of three dishes, either vegetarian or nonvegetarian, plus a whole order of naan, rice, raita, and warm kheer for dessert? It's probably more than you should eat for lunch if you don't want to nap at your desk, but it's so good, and no more than $9.

On the dinner end, there are a handful of lobster dishes on which to splurge. There are almost no other Indian restaurants doing lobster in Madison (Taste of India offers the same selection but shares the same owner). Other than that, a single lobster dish at Mirch Masala appears to be the extent of it.

Dhaba's lobster is tender enough, in a style where one could reasonably expect overcooking. I tried the lobster korma with mild spice, and the bright orange gravy was sweet and nutty. Impressively, there were six hefty chunks of lobster meat in the dish, easily enough (along with rice and soup or salad) to justify the $18 price tag. I ended up with the fanciest lunch leftovers I've ever warmed up in the work microwave.

With the more traditional Indian dishes, Dhaba does fine. Chicken dopiazza is a popular dish (though also not seen often in Madison), and its name refers to the Persian word for onion. There are indeed a lot of onions, and the sauce is brightly acidic from the tomatoes; the white-meat chicken was a little dry. The biryanis are dark and savory, and the lamb version features supremely tender meat that is only further enhanced by the contrasting coolness of the cucumber raita served alongside.

The tandoori chicken threatens to stain your fingers as badly as any barbecue. The lunch portion of drumstick and thigh sit on a bed of spicy, pungent pickled vegetables, and the meat is tender, with just a hint of smoke. Once the weather warms, this will be a great dish to order for takeout and eat at, say, the nearby Capital Brewery beer garden.

Vegetarian dishes were uniformly successful. Karhi pakora, a mash of chickpea fritter and vegetables in a yellow gravy, had that rich Indian umami flavor blended with the tangy creaminess of yogurt. The paneer masala featured firm, mellow cheese and classic tomato-cream sauce with plenty of heat. The deep-fried paneer pakoras, with their crisp chickpea flour shell, were equally delicious. Fried curds via the subcontinent. I strongly recommend dipping them in the onion relish and tamarind chutney.

Goat curry arrived in a brown sauce glistening with oil. The gravy was strong with cilantro, but the goat would have benefited from a lower and slower cook - it was a bit chewy, even for goat. One of my favorite Indian starters, vegetable samosas, were too heavy on potato and not seasoned quite enough.

But the naan comes out fresh and hot, the mango lassi is as smooth as silk, and let me tell you again about that kheer dessert. A rice pudding made with coconut milk, golden raisins and cashews, this kheer is sweet like a praline but somehow manages not to make my fillings hurt. It's maybe the best part of that lunch special, and from a special lunch like the one at Dhaba Indian Bistro, that's saying something.

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