Well-spiced, intensely flavored Nepali food; a menu offering steamed leafy greens, brown rice, tofu, and dahl; seasonal specials from farmers market vendors: why didn’t I realize the perfection of Dobhan before? I first encountered the East Side Indian-inspired restaurant at a neighbor’s anniversary party held in the orange-walled, Hindu deity-laden space in 2009 soon after it first opened. Back then, I still ate fish and dairy, hadn’t fully developed a true appreciation for high-quality food, and wore thick-rimmed black glasses that didn’t actually improve my vision paired with sweater vests. Yeah, I was a pretty cool kid.
Over the next 2 1/2 years, I patronized Dobhan on a number of revisits, pleased with each one though never sufficiently wowed enough to rank it at the top of my “dependable restaurants” list. Perhaps the Indian-Nepali fusion establishment had to battle its way into my eatery spotlight because I didn’t harbor the same love of well-prepared vegetarian food in my pre-vegan days as I do now, or maybe because after becoming a vegan, the waitress brought out my order with a pile of white jasmine rice instead of brown—a veritable sin in the healthful vegan world. About a year after the shameful whole grain (or lack thereof) incident, I decided to allow Dobhan one last attempt at impressing me. Oh, how they delivered and oh, how I’ve frequented their scrumptious ethnic fare ever since.
When I say Indian food, you may invision heavy curries, flatbreads dripping with ghee, an overloaded stomach, and a night spent on the toilet. However, combined with the lighter Tibetan cuisine and twisted with a modern viewpoint, Dobhan offers fresh, light, and exceptionally healthy dishes including an entire menu page devoted to vegetarian and vegan options.
My mother, father, and I ventured to my favorite East Side area, Schenk’s Corner, home to four of my top favorite Madison restaurants: Mermaid Cafe, The Green Owl, Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, and of course, Dobhan, which we planned on visiting that night for dinner. After spending a week at Phantom Lake living on premade casseroles, I nearly peed my pants at the prospect of a satisfying vegan meal in a calm atmosphere rather than in the raucous dining hall hurriedly shoving food in my mouth while preventing my campers from engaging in countless chugging contests and spilling water every which way.
The aspect of Dobhan that pleases me the most remains that I can easily fill in every square on my meal checklist: protein, whole grain, vegetables, and leafy greens. To satisfy my greens requirement, I always opt for the small plate of Hariyo as an appetizer—an almost giftwrapped package-like square of steamed Asian greens including bok choy and mustard sprinkled with tamari and sesame seeds which lend a tang of umami that complements but doesn’t overwhelm the earthy natural flavor of the greens.
Following suit, my father also ordered a plate of Hariyo (a true Southern boy, the man loves his collard greens!), while my mother’s eyes sparkled at the daily salad special: a farmers market mix of heirloom tomatoes, baby cucumbers, pickled beets, basil chiffonade, and Asiago cheese. I swiped a cheese-free bite of pickled beet and tomato, marveling at the sweet succulent flavors of summer.
My main dish came with a choice of salad or dahl and, not being completely insane or incompetent about choosing delicious food, my father and I eagerly requested the dahl. Each Indian restaurant I’ve patronized features their own very unique versions of dahl, as does the Mermaid Cafe which infuses a South American spin on the lentil-based stew. Earthy, bountiful in toothsome garbanzo and white beans as well as lentils, not overly spiced, simmered with tomatoes and sprinkled with basil, the dahl at Dobhan never fails to please the legume lover in me. And hey, if someone at the table doesn’t finish their dahl, how could I possibly allow that stewy yumminess to go to waste?
Amidst a 7-dish cornucopia of tantalizing vegan-friendly dishes such as coconut-crusted tofu, Moroccan tagine with almonds and couscous, and a seitan-vegetable saute, the Tofu Buff caught my hungry eye (or perhaps rather, my stomach). Served alongside a pile of short-grain brown rice (no mess-up from the kitchen this time!), this mix of sweet caramelized onions, crunchy snow peas and zucchini, meaty mushrooms, ever-so-slightly wilted baby spinach, and strips of hearty marinated tofu transformed a previously casserole-filled Ali into one intensely happy vegan. If I could somehow accurately describe the amazingly savory mix of Nepali spices that permeated the tofu, believe me I would, but after slowly chewing piece after piece of drool-worthy soy and mulling carefully over each bit, I still haven’t the slightest idea of which ingredients created this magical tofu. You’ll have to trust me—the best tofu in Madison.
Meal Checklist: Protein–tofu and beans in dahl. Whole Grain–brown rice. Vegetables–mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, and snow peas. Leafy Greens–mixed Asian and spinach.
A long-time lover of the Italian antipasto platter, my mother ordered the Mediterranean Flat Bread platter—warm Indian flatbread with housemade hummus, muhammara (red pepper walnut spread), carrot terche, and kalamata olives. An avid non-vegan and meat lover, my father opted for the Dehli Gosht—beef braised with thyme and rosemary mixed with carrots and potatoes, served with flatbread to soak up the meaty juices. I guess some people like that sort of thing. Surprisingly my mother, who usually leaves at least a third of her restaurant meals uneaten on the plate, gobbled up every last knifeful of spreads and slice of bread while my father, a man of few words, uttered a content “It’s good!” in response to my inquiry of the quality of his dish.
Though Dobhan’s climb to reach the top of Mount Ali’s Favorite Restaurants spanned almost three years, I’m eternally grateful that I did not give up on its Nepali-Indian cuisine, for now I hunt for any occasion (a birthday, a 4.0 GPA, a Tuesday night), to dine in the brightly ethnic and wonderfully vegan-friendly atmosphere that constantly fulfills all of my nutritional needs.
Want more on Dobhan? Check out my less extensive later adventure at this lovely eatery here.
Until next time, Ali.