Madison Masala, State Street’s only Indian-Pakistani restaurant, recently relocated to a new and expanded location at 227 State Street, nestled between Radical Rye and The Madison Civic Center. Masala’s new location boasts a larger dining area, a hookah bar, and a custom-built tandoor clay oven. One employee informed me that owner Shariff Syed, a native of Kuwait, wanted a larger, more sophisticated restaurant to attract people from the downtown business area and the capitol. Madison Masala is not relying strictly on students for its business.
Madison Masala’s former location was cozy but too small. There was often a long waiting list for a table every night and the former location lacked a bar, a prerequisite to any successful establishment on State Street. One bonus addition to Madison Masala’s new “Sheesha Bar” is a small collection of beautifully decorated hookahs imported from Egypt and Lebanon. For anyone interested in trying a hookah, they run $16 for a single or $10 with a cocktail order. Supplementing these is an alluring collection of exotic flavored tobaccos, ranging from the popular strawberry to mysterious flavors like Jazmine.
Arriving at the pinnacle of the State Street dining frenzy, 7:30 Friday evening, I was promptly seated without any wait. The main dining room was very chic and cosmopolitan. It felt dark and cool. Candlelight danced on the black lacquered tabletops and the exotic sound of Indian pop music filled the room. Purple and yellow mirrored pillows adorned the comfortable booths that lined the back wall of the room, giving the whole restaurant a relaxing feeling. Masala has the appearance of the perfect place for an intimate dinner date or to kick back with a cold mango lassi, a refreshing non-alcoholic drink made with tart yogurt and juicy mango pulp.
After mulling over the six different appetizers offered on the regular menu, I settled on the epitome of Indian appetizers: the aloo somosa, $2.59. The aloo somosa consists of two fist-sized, cone-shaped pastries made with chick pea flour and filled with a savory mixture of potatoes and peas. The mixture is seasoned with garam masala spices and black cumin seeds. The whole pastry is then deep-fried to a golden brown in vegetable oil. It is served with two chutneys: a tangy, mango and raisin chutney and a spicy, green chutney made with cilantro, green chiles, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and lemon juice.
Next, I enjoyed a bowl of lentil dal, a rich, thick vegetarian soup made with lentils and various Indian spices topped with diced mint leaves. It was delicious to the last drop and I soaked it up with a piece of hardy naan–a soft, chewy, Indian flatbread baked in the tandoor clay oven.
When my waitress took my appetizer away, she informed me that all the main dishes and specials are made to order. That explained the long wait for my entree to arrive, but the freshness of the food outweighed the annoyance.
With a love for spicy Cajun and Thai foods, I ordered the Tandoori combo at $11.99. The combo is a traditional Indian dish consisting of succulent hunks of white chicken meat marinated in yogurt and lemon juice. The yogurt marinade tenderizes the meat and adds a tangy element to the flavor. The intense heat that flows up and over the meat as it is lowered into the tandoor on a skewer seals in the natural juices of the meat, leaving it tender and succulent.
When my order finally arrived, I faced a sizzling pile of meat arranged on a bed of raw, sliced green peppers and greasy, bitter sautéed onions that resembled a Tex Mex fajita. The steaming hot shrimp and chicken appeared to be liberally dusted with cyanne pepper. Upon the first bite of shrimp, my mouth was instantly filled with heat, quickly followed by cold water to relieve my burning pallet.
The Tandoori combo was greatly disappointing. Expecting the exotic tastes of India and Pakistan, I instead spent the rest of the evening relishing in the chalky taste of Pepto Bismol and rushing to the bathroom every 20 minutes.
After dinner, my waitress presented a selection of desserts. Unfortunately, I had neither the room, nor the appetite for dessert. Nonetheless, the choices looked intriguing, especially the Kulfi pistasio ice cream which comes in two flavors: mango or plain for $2.29.
When it boils down to it, Madison Masala is a great restaurant featuring a diverse menu of Indian and Pakistani dishes. I noticed several vegetarian dishes and was told that the produce used in the preparation of all their food was locally grown to ensure freshness. If anything, the hookah experience is worth a trip to the Masala. However, the Tandoori food should come with a warning or a choice of varying levels of spiciness. This is only a minor glitch in a restaurant that has the potential to rival The Casbah as the next exotic nightspot for a savory bite or a hit from a hookah.
Hours mon-fri 11:30 am to 2:30pm
dinner mon-thur 5:30 to 9pm
fir and sat 5:30 to 10pm
Sunday 4:30 to 9pm
Credit cards yes