I’ve been feeling very romantic about my recent experiences at Haldi Masala, a new storefront Indian restaurant on Madison’s far west side.
The day after my first dinner, I stood daydreaming at my desk about turmeric and clove, fennel seeds and chilies. I changed my desktop background to a masala dosa ($6.99), so pretty and golden.
As I moved through daily tasks, I could still smell the cardamom in Haldi’s lamb rogan josh ($13.99), so tender and fatty and rich. I felt pangs of regret thinking of how I gave leftover karaikudi veg ($9.99) to friends. It was so deeply spiced, so aromatic.
I never knew the potential of a hardboiled egg until I tried one with a swift kick of chili heat. I recalled the lentils with mango (mamidikaya pappu) on the lunch buffet, how sweet and earthy they were. I wondered when we could be together again.
Open since late last summer, the homey, welcoming Haldi Masala on Mineral Point Road is a rarity on the chain-dominated west side. It shares space in the High Point Shopping Center with a Pier 1 and a Dollar Tree. But the family-centered feel of this place could not be further from corporate America.
Part of what makes this restaurant feel so warm is that a family is physically there — Mom, Dad and Krishnav Raja, nearly 3, playing under tables and making his mark on the menus.
Krishnav’s parents, Haldi owners Tarsinder Kaur and Raja Selvaraju, kept one eye on him and the other on their tables.
A consummate host, Selvaraju introduced himself as Raj and was forever cracking jokes. At my every inquiry, he grinned and said, “That’ll be $1,000, ma’am."
As I wrestled with chopped, shell-on seafood in nandu masala, Kaur ran to grab crab crackers from the back. Childishly, I refused the offer — if their kid can do it, so can I! — but I was charmed.
Previously, Kaur and Selvaraju owned and ran Aroma Curry House in Champaign, Illinois. Haldi, open in the former location of Kangchen Indian, is named for turmeric, a root believed to have medicinal benefits.
“Indian food is not limited to chicken tikka masala and paneer,” the owners wrote, responding to an email. “There is so much more to explore about Indian food. That’s what we believe. We are serving the food that makes people feel (at) home.”
They achieve that by not dumbing anything down. Chef Kavin Kumar’s food is bright with chili heat, with bones in the goat, lamb and chicken. A crab curry contained whole bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods as well as full, shell-on crustacean, hacked to pieces in the gravy.
It’s worth a little edible learning curve for Indian dishes that are this well-balanced, expertly seasoned and never greasy. Fish, even on the buffet, stayed delicate and tender. Pieces of eggplant in vankaya masala melted away; baby bella mushrooms stayed in firm, meaty chunks.
Buttery Mount Road parotta with salna ($9.99) came to the table with a side of street food-style curry. My friend immediately pronounced it “croissant naan,” it was so flaky. I called it my new favorite way to eat curry.
Haldi has added spice level indicators on its buffet, but they’re pretty subjective. Vegetarian biryani (rice dish) and chicken pepper fry both carried a “Spicy!” warning, but I’d classify them as medium.
Yet at Haldi, heat levels weren’t subtle, and they built. Even on the buffet, spice lovers might start with mirchi bajji, chunks of whole seed-in jalapeños fried in chickpea flour ($6.99 a la carte).
That said, Haldi’s good about offering things to cool the tongue. A spongy white rice and lentil cake called idli reminded me of baby food; like rice, it was the perfect salve to a spicy goat curry ($13.99). Curd rice, or yogurt rice, was like rice mixed with raita. After all that chili, it tasted as cool as jumping into the lake in the summer.
We did find the rare disappointment at Haldi. Paneer dishes, especially on the buffet, were fairly boring. Fried things didn’t fare well on the steam table, so pepper chicken and fritters like bonda tended to be dense and a bit grainy.
One dessert, fried bread with raisins and cashews, reminded me of doughnuts soaked in honey syrup. Another, beetroot halwa, had appealing sweetness but the texture was gummy.
For those who haven’t grown up with Indian cuisine, we’re sometimes nervous either that we won’t know what we’re eating or we’ll do it wrong. A doughy Midwesterner used to dancing the pale food polka may fret about the heat in sambaar (spicy vegetarian lentils). And I’ll confess, I really didn’t want to make a mess with that soupy, shell-on crab.
But where Haldi gets it so consistently right is just this, making diners feel comfortable. Kaur and Selvaraju were never more than a few feet away with a helpful explanation, extra mint chutney or a wine suggestion (the restaurant has a full liquor license).
This is the kind of place where someone who’s spent years with the mixed grill and chicken tikka can find a new crush to fall head over heels for.
I feel the love. Haldi is something special.