Downtown diners this fall will have the chance to finally acquaint themselves with dosa, the griddled South Indian dish made from fermented lentils. Revival Food Hall is bringing the dish to the Loop when Art of Dosa opens this fall as a permanent vendor.
Art of Dosa has grown a loyal fan base at food festivals and as a virtual restaurant that delivers. Its owner will also give Revival its first 100-percent vegan and vegetarian entry, replacing TOMI sushi. There’s no ghee in the dosas.
It’s been a journey for AOD founder Ravi Nagubadi, who signed a lease for his first restaurant back in summer 2017. Plans fell through for the downtown space. The Revival location should open in the fall while a second location, in the upcoming Mall of India, should open in November or December in suburban Naperville.
The menu hasn’t been finalized for Revival. For instance, fried items available for delivery such as deep-fried idli fries, won’t be available — at least at first. Idlies are another South Indian delicacy, a soft rice disc that’s often consumed at breakfast. While dosas are the stars, the idly fries also give customers an idea of what Nagubadi is trying to do at his restaurant.
“I’m as American as I am Indian,” said Nagubadi, whose parents came from a small village outside Guntar, India.
Nagubadi left his job as a software engineer, believing dosa should be as popular as pizza and sushi in America. Dosas are culturally important to many South Indians like Nagubadi. Americanized Indian food is often represented by the flavors of North India (tandoori chicken) and Anglo-Indian cuisine (butter chicken). The dosa represents a chance to break through into the mainstream. Classic versions, like masala dosa with spiced potatoes, are available. They’re made to order and will eventually be customizable once staff figures out customer flow.
Dosas aren’t new to Chicago. There are plenty of restaurants on Devon Avenue, like Mysore Woodlands or Udupi Palace, that serve them — but it’s not their focus. Nagubadi wants to bring dosas to the masses, not just to the South Asian community. Whether it’s yoga or chai, he noted that Indians struggle with that concept. That allows companies like Lululemon and Starbucks to capitalize.
“India is never really good at being good at selling something of its own to the West,” Nagubadi said.
Art of Dosa modernizes the items serving them wrap-style with ingredients like a vegan version of Chicken 65, the iconic Indo-Chinese item. It’s sweet and savory, reminiscent of General Tso’s Chicken and made with soy protein. The restaurant adds little touches like potent gunpowder pepper for those who need heat and a coconut chutney without garlic or onions for those who observe Jainism. Nagubadi is also working on vegan ice cream that will blend savory spices.
The Loop lunch crowd is a different animal, as customers need to get in and get out. A dosa takes about four to five minutes to cook, and it’s not easy. Anybody can flip a fast-food burger, Nagubadi said, but making a dosa takes patience and the right technique. It’s a labor-intensive item, as the batter needs the proper pH level during fermentation. The level of detail is reminiscent of how seriously a pizza maker conducts business when making dough.
That’s not the only similarity, as pizza lovers often discuss the “Pizza I Grew Up Eating” principle. That’s when nostalgia rules and eaters show preferences to their childhood memories, rejecting any version that deviates. Nagubadi’s mother, Aruna, helped develop the recipe at Art of Dosa, ensuring it’s crispy. But some folks prefer softer dosas, which is the texture of appam, another South Indian rice pancake (Thattu in Politan Row serves a stellar version).
Nagubadi is hopeful Revival’s customers will embrace his food. He has a group of enthusiastic workers, none of them of Indian descent, which gives him hope. He’s taught them the ways of the dosa and hopes to teach more students in the future.