Madison's newest Indian restaurant, Mirch Masala, recently opened its doors on the north side of Capitol Square in the space vacated by the short-lived Flavor of India. It looks the same: clean, plain and over-lit, but pleasant.
Despite haphazard service, which included an appetizer platter that arrived after the entrees and a forgotten salad, there were many bright spots.
There are 17 types of bread: some tandoor-baked, some fried; some plain and others stuffed with combinations of vegetables, meats, cheese and spices. Both the plain naan ($2.50) and the kulcha ($2.95), filled with caramelized onion and sprinkled with black pepper, arrived warm and beautifully blistered from the tandoor.
The belatedly delivered mixed vegetarian platter ($5.95) contained an array of deep-fried items: three vegetable pakoras, two cheese pakoras, a samosa and aloo tikki. Despite the different fillings, thick batter left everything tasting pretty much the same, and they were mostly a backdrop for a tangy yogurt sauce.
Bowls of lentil-vegetable soup, not on the menu, were set before everyone. The soup was a welcome surprise on a cold night, but on the bland side. But that's where bland ended.
Dishes are prepared on a heat scale of one to five, as in five alarm. Three, it turns out, was almost too much for people who thought they could handle lots of fiery spices; frequent gulps of water were required.
One such hot pot was lamb bhartha ($14.95), a sublime combination of slow-cooked meat in a puree of roasted eggplant with onion and tomato. Another delicious scorcher was vegetable mix curry ($10.95) with green peas, cauliflower and potatoes.
The tandoori mixed grill, also ordered at level three heat, wasn't scary hot, mercifully, and it was excellent. It was a huge mound of shrimp, salmon, chicken, chicken kebab, and lamb kebab, with sauteed onion, all of it skillfully seasoned and tender.
A spectacular warm dessert with cashews, gajar halwa ($4.95) is a cross between kheer, an Indian pudding, and carrot cake, and pairs nicely with mango ice cream ($4.95).