The best kinds of restaurant chains are the local ones that don't grow too fast or too big. When the venerable, homey Himal Chuli - as much of a Madison landmark at this point as the Capitol - spawned the sleek Chautara, State Street seemed safe for reliable Nepalese food. But State Street, apparently, wasn't enough. Chautara in turn has recently given birth to Dobhan, adding to the growing global mix of Mexican, Asian and pure American diner cuisine rousing the Atwood neighborhood.
Dobhan also represents another kind of lesson. If the best semi-chains grow slowly and stay local, they also understand that repeating past successes can just look redundant. Chautara's menu is substantially different from Himal Chuli's, and Dobhan in turn clearly isn't out to rehash a lot of old Chautara favorites, partly because the three restaurants represent less of a literal chain than an organic, family-run expansion.
In fact, the new restaurant's sheer ambition becomes clear when you walk through the door. This is simply one of the prettiest new dining rooms in Madison. The big, airy, loft-like room is brought down a bit in scale by walls painted a mix of yellow and bluish green. There is a long prayer wheel sitting on a ledge, as well as elegant wooden booths, marble and granite floors and low-hanging glass lights punctuating the room with bursts of bright primary colors: blue, red, yellow, green. The effect is a seamless mix of Asian and artisanal Midwestern, and the two traditions play off each other smoothly.
The other surprise is the adventurous menu, which takes in a wider scope than its sister kitchens'. There is shrimp curry and samosa, but also a Mediterranean flat bread plate, pork pot stickers, a number of tagines, a Tunisian lamb kebab and chicken tandoori.
How does this culinary mix fare? A lot of it works well. Some of the successes are old successes. Chautara's signature samosa, an epic pasty, resurfaces intact here. The dough is still nice and flaky, the samosa itself stuffed with a fresh mix of cubed potatoes and peas. The pakuda, vegetables fried in chickpea batter, are also fine. But the knock-out starter is that Mediterranean flat bread plate, which features triangles of hot flat bread paired with scoops of a perfect hummus (delicate and spared too much garlic), a carrot terche and a red pepper walnut paste that you'll keep eating, without stopping for a second, until it's gone.
Less successful starters and small plates: a surprisingly dull curry shrimp (the shrimp undercooked, the coconut curry sauce too timid); pot stickers that are too gummy; and a crabmeat potato croquette that is feathery light but calls for less potato and more crab.
If you're watching your money, though, none of those appetizers is crucial. Dobhan's entrées come with your choice of a perfect dal soup or a salad, topped by cucumber yogurt or honey poppy seed dressing (both good). The entrées in themselves are also very filling, and that includes the vegetarian dishes. Dosa, another resurfacing Chautara signature dish, features a delicately crunchy crepe of ground rice and urad bean that shoots over both sides of its plate. It comes filled with masala-spiced potatoes that offer a nice contrast to the elegant crepe, though Dobhan could go Chautara one better by playing with a variety of new stuffings.
If you're not ready to dive into the very meaty nonvegetarian menu, the broiled fillet of Chilean sea bass, served with an understated galangal-lemongrass curry sauce, is as good as anything you'll find in an overpriced glamorama restaurant; the sea bass has a velvety texture and a sweet flavor. The Tunisian lamb kebab, a more straightforward dish, is as good a lamb kebab as you'll find in town, and the skewered chicken breast tandoori is perfect - the grilled chicken kebabs juicy, moist and perfumed.
In fact, nothing is really a bust among the entrées, and the lamb tagine could be a new signature dish if there were more almonds and maybe some fruitier apricots in the stew; the figs don't offer a sweet or tart enough accent to balance the big pot of very meaty meat. The beef Tunis - another very carnivorous serving of braised beef that could be a bit more tender - also needs an added flavor or texture that would elevate all that brown meat.
Desserts, not an emphasis here, are what they are. If I never confronted another crème brûlée I'd be happy, but the almost obligatory dessert surfaces here in classic, dull, textbook form. So does an insipid rum currant cake. But if you want serious desserts, you can march across the street to the Blue Plate and get a wedge of cream pie. Chances are you won't need to, after Dobhan's seductive, heaped plates of food.