Madan Shrestha has brought the curries, flatbreads and simmered dishes of India to Monona's main drag.
Shrestha, a native of Nepal, is intimately familiar with Indian food; he ran Maharaja on Odana Road for 10 years. Shrestha opened Swad Indian Restaurant at 6007 Monona Drive in early January and runs the restaurant with his wife, Laxmi, his college-age daughter and teenage son, as well as other family members.
Lekh Gurung is the chef, and while the menu is wide-ranging geographically, it tends to focus on the curries and yogurt-based dishes of northern India over the rice and lentils of the south.
"Mostly I focus on north Indian, because north Indian is most popular in big cities, Mumbai and Delhi," Shrestha said. "But I learned northern food and southern food."
Swad serves a daily buffet from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $9.95. On a recent visit, it featured a variety of proteins, various vegetables fried in chickpea fritters (pakora) and simmered with fresh cheese (paneer), as well as flatbread and fried rice (biryani).
Swad's buffet is geared toward beginners. Spice levels are mild even in the chutneys, usually a reliable source of sweetness or heat.
Buffet standards like chicken tikka masala ($12.95 at dinner), a British hybrid with white meat chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, and lamb curry ($12.95 at dinner) both had a fine mix of spices — ginger, garlic, a warm garam masala spice blend. Neither saw any chili or cayenne.
"We have a perfect spicy label we use," Shrestha said, which includes mild, medium and hot. "We don't want to scare people with very spicy and hot."
One consistent challenge for Swad seems to be keeping proteins juicy. Tandoori chicken ($12.95 at dinner) practically glowed red with spice (or possibly food coloring), but even the dark meat was fairly dry and bland.
Better were two options from the grill — tender catfish and bell peppers, and a daily special of grilled chicken marinated in yogurt, served on a sizzling platter of onions and peppers.
Shrestha said he often includes Nepalese specialties on the buffet like momo, a dumpling similar to Japanese gyoza, tarkari, a savory vegetable stew made with crossover spices (turmeric, coriander, cumin), and sel roti, a sweet fried donut made from rice.
Nepal has "a similar culture and similar food," he said. And he likes the flexibility those specials afford him — "every day is something different."
At dinner, Swad's vigilant waitstaff was careful to check spice levels and emphasize the bones in the rich goat curry ($13.95).
Samosa chat ($5.95) takes spiced potato dumplings and mashes them up with five kinds of chutney, like sour tamarind, mind and cilantro. It was colorful and surprisingly crunchy, not a bad start. Cubes of handmade cheese in spinach-heavy sag paneer ($11.95) tasted fresh and creamy.
Other dishes didn't fare as well.
Dal makhani ($10.95), a dish of lentils, kidney beans and tomato, looked and tasted muddy. A Mysore masala dosa ($8.95), a folded crepe the diameter of a beach ball, was doughy and limp. Wedges of flatbread stuffed with cauliflower, called gobhi paratha ($2.95), were too greasy to finish.
A dessert of rice pudding, or kheer ($3.95) was lightly sweet, but the masala tea (chai, $1.95) was overly so, and mango ice cream had a grittiness to it.
Yet Shrestha, who shares cooking duties with Gurung and front-of-house management with his wife, is optimistic that the variety of dishes at Swad will continue to bring repeat customers. Reviews on Yelp have been almost universally glowing.
"Monona is a small town, a beautiful city," Shrestha said. "They like to see diversity of food and culture … (but) there was no Indian buffet.
"All the Monona people have been very happy."