Fast Biryani interior

Fast Biryani is roomy and casual with a two-toned orange color scheme and hard, plastic fast food-type booths.

JOHN HART — State Journal

Madison is rich with excellent Indian food. In fact, there’s not a bum restaurant in the bunch.

Now comes a homegrown, convenience-oriented Indian restaurant that, astonishingly, is as good as any of them. The only thing lacking at Fast Biryani is a buffet. But it’s not that kind of place.

Brother and sister Fareed and Anjum Syeda opened Fast Biryani in November near East Towne Mall and did an admirable job transforming the free-standing former La Bamba location tucked away on the far end of East Washington Avenue.

The counter-service restaurant is roomy and casual with a two-toned orange color scheme and those hard, plastic fast food-type booths.

Fareed was at the counter when we ordered and couldn’t have been friendlier. He told us about a coupon deal in Advantage magazine and advised us on ordering one dessert over another.

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Fast Biryani exterior

Fast Biryani opened in November near East Towne Mall in the old La Bamba location on the far end of East Washington Avenue.

There weren’t many people in the restaurant at dinnertime on a weekday, and our food arrived promptly.

Everything was devastatingly good, starting with the kheema samosa ($1.49), filled with flavorful minced chicken, instead of that typical, tired potato mixture. Two sauces came in little plastic containers: the familiar sweet tamarind chutney, and a green coriander-mint chutney that was creamier and smoother than the standard one served with Indian appetizers.

Under “tidbits,” we tried the paneer tikka ($5.99), cubes of firm Indian cheese topped with yellow curry sauce. It seemed, at first, like the cubes should be covered with spinach as part of a palak paneer, the famous Indian spinach and cheese dish, but after we got used to it, the cheese was a delightful novelty.

Anjum comes in every morning between 9 and 10 to make the signature biryani, which is said to have originated in Hyderabad, India, where the Syedas are from.

The dry, oven-roasted basmati rice was served with a cup of green-tinted raita, or yogurt sauce, which helped to moisten it, enliven it, and deepen the flavors. We ordered the vegetable version ($8.99), but the veggies — green beans, potato, peas and carrots — seemed more like an accent.

Fareed said their biryani is marinated with yogurt, herbs and spices for at least 12 hours before it gets baked for an hour. The resulting dish was fantastic. The aroma alone was a knockout.

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vegetable biryani

The restaurant's signature biryani was served with a cup of green-tinted raita, or yogurt sauce, which helps moisten it and deepen the flavors. Pictured above is the vegetable version.

The star on this night, though, was a curry dish called chicken pasindey ($7.99), with a remarkable beige sauce made with yogurt. The mix of spices added up to big flavor. The chicken pieces were large and in generous supply.

Unexpected but delicious triangles of fresh, warm naan, or Indian flatbread, came along, wrapped in tinfoil.

Also exceptional was an order of beef kebab ($7.99), marinated ground meat reconstituted into chunks, heartily seasoned and spicy, and served in a paper basket garnished with cilantro, lime and slices of jalapeno.

The only real fault I found with Fast Biryani is that maybe the white rice that came with the curry dish was prepared a bit too fast, and contained a few clumps. If that’s the main criticism, you know you’ve got a winner.

For dessert, I tried to order something I was unfamiliar with called qubani ka meetha, an apricot dish popular in Hyderabad. Fareed steered us instead toward the double ka meetha ($3.49), which he estimated is what 80 percent of those who get dessert order.

He described it as a mix of bread pudding and baklava, and that’s pretty accurate, especially the bread pudding part. The 80 percent are on to something. My tablemate and I nearly came to blows in determining who got the last bite.

A group that came in while we were finishing stood looking at the menu board, wondering what to order. I had to refrain from getting involved. I might have gushed on and on, enthusiastically recommending everything we tried.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.