For too long, the downtown Madison area suffered without an Indian restaurant, but the recently opened Maharani Restaurant, located at 380 W. Washington Ave., has put an end to that suffering.

This casual dining establishment serves tasty North and South Indian dishes at affordable prices. At $10 to $14 per entrée, Maharani compares well with other restaurants in the area — and its $8 lunch buffet (served from 11:30 to 3 p.m. every day) is certainly a steal.

Maharani starts dinners off very well, bringing out complimentary pappadums, fried cracker-like disks with the light flavor of fennel seed. These come with three sauces: a red chutney that contains raw onions, a sweet and sour tamarind syrup and the most delicious mint chutney I have ever tasted. The last chutney was so good that at one point, when nobody was looking, a certain food critic may have plopped a generous dollop of it on his fork and hastily shoved it in his mouth entirely unaccompanied by any sort of carbohydrate.

For those of you who are less interested than I am in unceremoniously gulping chutney, Maharani has a lot more to offer in the way of bread than just pappadums. Their naan, a North Indian flatbread made in a clay tandoori oven, was outstanding. Their aloo paratha, a flavorful, potato-based bread with onions, was also delicious. At $2.50 a pop and portions that feed four, both of these breads are definitely worth trying.

After the usual restaurant routine of filling up on bread, it is refreshing to see the reasonable portion sizes at Maharani. Each dish comes out in an attractive pewter bowl that does not contain the absurdly large mounds of food that appear to be the norm at restaurants these days. In spite of their modest portions, diners need not fear going home hungry. Any one of their rich dishes served over fragrant basmati rice is enough to satisfy even the largest of appetites. With a menu of more than 100 items, Maharani offers something for vegetarians, seafood lovers, die-hard carnivores and just about everybody in between.

The vegetarian section of their menu is remarkable. Their bindhi masala is a perfectly spiced combination of okra, bell peppers and onions that is delicious enough to please even the most vegetable-phobic of diners. Also of note are the malai kofta: fried vegetable balls with a pleasant, hearty texture and served in a rich, complexly flavored sauce.

For diners craving some animal protein, Maharani's meat dishes are equally tempting. The butter chicken is a decadent, slightly sweet curry with a sauce that is every bit as rich as its name would lead you to believe. If diners are looking for something a bit lighter, the chicken tikka masala, a mainstay of North Indian cuisine, is just as flavorful as the butter chicken but not as heavy. Maharani's true star, however, is one of its lightest chicken dishes, the mango chicken. It combines fall-off-the-bone tender chicken with fresh fruit and an appealing combination of spices for a truly unique flavor.

Overall, the entrées were delicious, but they were not completely without flaws. The meat was slightly overcooked in some of the chicken dishes, and the cauliflower in the mixed vegetable curry was a bit on the raw side. However, all but one of the dishes made up for any technical flaws with great flavor.

The only disappointment was the palak paneer (spinach and cheese). Maharani took a normally decadent dish that combines the earthy flavor of spinach with well-browned chunks of fried cheese and turned it into something that tasted, frankly, "good for you." That said, even this lowlight of the meal had a good enough flavor to be worth the $10 price tag.

If Maharani's entrées do not leave you sufficiently stuffed, they have a small but diverse menu of traditional Indian desserts. Their galub jamuns are the perfect way to end a meal in the cold Wisconsin winter. They are essentially hot doughnut holes soaking in a pool of aromatic syrup that, if it were socially acceptable, I would seriously consider making the sole beverage in my diet.

The owners of Maharani understand that, after a marathon of eating, diners' hands can get pretty messy. That is why the servers bring out rosewater-steamed hot towels after the meal. This is the perfect way to cap off a great dining experience and a pleasant surprise at such an affordable restaurant.

Whether you're looking for a nice place to eat with your parents, a fun new restaurant for a date or just somewhere to enjoy good food with some good friends, Maharani is definitely worth trying.