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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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Lucky vegans: Five divine dishes at Madison restaurants that are also animal-free
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Bunky's comforting Mediterranean eggplant.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

It's a great time to be a vegan in Madison, especially for those who enjoy dining out. Local chefs and restaurateurs are making an effort to welcome vegans to their establishments by clearly identifying vegan choices on their menus and going beyond the ubiquitous hummus wrap to offer tasty, satisfying meals that also happen to include no meat, dairy products, eggs or other animal-derived ingredients.

In my experience, many Madison chefs will gladly create an off-menu meal for vegans or other patrons with special dietary needs. But here, I'll focus on locally owned restaurants that have vegan choices on their everyday menus.

Mediterranean eggplant, Bunky's Café

Bunky's Café is on the short list of Madison's most vegan-friendly restaurants, offering vegan appetizers, sandwiches, soup, entrees (including pizza with vegan cheese) and desserts. It's all delicious, but I find myself returning again and again for the Mediterranean eggplant - a hearty, comforting stew of tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, onions and garlic served with rice or couscous. I prefer the rice, as it seems to hold up to the rich, flavorful sauce better than the tiny pasta can. Together with Bunky's signature lentil soup, it's a wonderful meal to warm you up on a cold February evening.

Vegan dumplings, Umami

From the moment I stepped inside, I regretted it had taken me so long to visit Umami, which opened in March 2011. The restaurant's interior is cozy and intimate, divided into a few small dining areas painted in warm, inviting colors. Umami is a ramen and dumpling bar, and offers vegan versions of each. The vegan ramen features vermicelli noodles, lightly cooked vegetables and seaweed in a delicate mushroom broth. It's a simple, beautiful meal.

The standout for me, however, is the vegan dumplings. They are steamed and then pan-fried until lightly browned on one side. The savory filling is a mixture of smoked tofu, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy. Of the three dipping sauces, I prefer the spicy. I couldn't get the exact recipe, but was told the main ingredients are chili garlic paste and sriracha.

Blackened seitan, Liliana's

Liliana's has two vegan dinner entrees. The black bean burger was good, but the blackened seitan knocked our vegan socks off. Four peppery medallions of house-made seitan are topped with red chimichurri - a sauce made with red bell pepper, garlic and herbs - and served atop creamy sweet potato puree and sautéed, julienned yellow and zucchini squash. Ooh, it was so nice.

Dolmeh felfel, Nile Mediterranean Cuisine

Former Lulu's chef and manager Mohammad Hinnawi opened the Nile in 2011 after Lulu's closed to make way for a real estate development. There are some similarities between the restaurants - the orange blossom-infused table water, a few familiar menu items, the decor - but there are enough differences to give the Nile a flavor all its own.

Choosing a favorite vegan entrée isn't easy, since the Nile has several excellent ones, but I'm giving the honors to the dolmeh felfel, a green bell pepper stuffed with rice and baked in a light tomato sauce. The key is thoroughly cooking the pepper so its sweetness comes through, which is the part I can never duplicate when I try making stuffed peppers at home. The Nile gets it exactly right. The pepper is soft but not overdone, the rice filling fluffy and well seasoned with dill and cilantro, and the simple, slightly acidic sauce helps to marry the flavors.

Vegan nachos, Tex Tubb's Taco Palace

Don't let the lettuce fool you. Tex Tubb's vegan nachos are about as far from "rabbit food" as a meal can get. Part of its new vegan menu, available on request, the vegan nachos start with a monstrous platter of tortilla chips piled high with an impressive variety of toppings, including black beans, tomatoes, olives, jalapeños, corn, onions, vegan queso and the shredded lettuce. The queso has a nice, creamy texture, but mine was barely lukewarm, which dampened my spirits a bit. I also think the queso could use more seasoning, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

I wasn't wowed by the vegan taco options. I found them a tad bland, especially the fried avocado taco, which tasted more of oily batter than avocado. At press time, the vegan menu posted on Tex Tubb's website did not match the version available at the restaurant.

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