The Green Owl Café
1970 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 3.5), $10-13.50, Vegetarian (Vegan-friendly)
I was pretty surprised to find out that Madison, Wisconsin only has one all-vegetarian restaurant (not including it’s one vegan coffee shop). Only one? What’s up with that? Isn’t this supposed to be a bastion of college town liberal elite in a purplish swing state? Where are the hordes of college professors demanding vegan meatballs? Where are the ex-hippies hunting for the best kale slaw? Where do the small-town Midwest male students take their hot West Coast dates to prove their liberal credentials, and thereby show their undying devotion? Only one restaurant?
To be fair, I discovered that my assumptions of Madison’s demographics were a bit overblown. Despite being a progressive college town, Madison is not quite as liberal as you might think. Ironically, the University of Wisconsin is much more politically centric than the rest of the town itself. Furthermore, maybe it is not too surprising to have a dearth of vegetarian restaurants in a state whose favorite vegetable is beer-battered cheese curds.
Luckily, the mantle of sole vegetarian restaurant in Madison is borne by The Green Owl Café, a pretty decent near-vegan restaurant whose focus dances between ECLECTIC and COMFORT.
I entered the restaurant to be greeted by a seemingly standard hipster food emporium with unobtrusive green and yellow décor and an eclectic supply of photographs and posters. On one wall I found a map of the Madison Underground. On another, facing me, were black and white head shot photos of goats and ducks from the Heartland Farm Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless farm animals in Wisconsin. Actually, I found the duck’s glamor shot a bit unsettling since he was staring at me throughout my meal, as if to say, “I’m watching you. Don’t you even THINK about backsliding, you carnivore-wannabe you!”
The clientele was a little less hipster-standard. Though most of the patrons were in their 20s and 30s, they looked like standard college students and business-casual professionals. Only the waitresses sported multiple tattoos and piercings.
I visited the restaurant on two separate occasions which afforded me the opportunity to try an ample number of dishes. On my first visit, I ordered the jambalaya and corn bread which came with a side of steamed kale. The jambalaya was a smoky mix of beans, grains, tomato, onion, celery, and big chunks of tempeh. It was moderately spicy with a wonderful flavor and texture. The cornbread had a nice roasted corn flavor, but in truth was a little too dry. The steamed kale was cooked just enough to retain a small amount of crunch, and its mild flavor was a perfect balance for the spicy stew. I also ordered a separate side of kale chips, just to try them, which were pleasantly crunchy, tasting mildly of olive oil, and just salty and savory enough to cut the bitterness of the kale. The ginger hibiscus kombucha had a faint ginger flavor, but since I am not an experienced kombucha aficionado, I am probably not the best judge of its character.
On my second trip, I ordered the vegan seitan schnitzel with porcini mushroom sauce, which came with roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli. The breaded schnitzel was very nice, mildly chewy but not tough. The mushroom sauce was chunky and creamy with a winey background flavor that gave it terrific complexity and body. Unfortunately, the potatoes were were too overdone, making them tough on the outside. The broccoli, although steamed perfectly to fork-tenderness, was pretty bland. I also ordered a Barrett’s Ginger Beer, which was reasonably good but not noticeably fantastic. And since I am most definitely an aficionado of ginger beer, you can take that to the bank.
I would definitely recommend The Green Owl, but I give its quality score a conditional 4. What they do well, they do very well. What they don’t do well, they do mediocrely. And as the only vegan game in town, they might feel comfortable to sit on their laurels and polish their many local awards.
However, one of these days, an enterprising entrepreneur from San Francisco, New York, Boulder, or even Ann Arbor (which has at least five vegetarian restaurants thank you very much) is going to recognize this town as a land of opportunity and set up a competing vegetarian establishment. Some Green Carpetbagger will stroll in with his or her own seitan banh mi or barbecue tofu or tempeh jambalaya and raise the expectations and quality of vegan fare in Madison. On that day, advertising will get competitive, loyalties will be tested, and the market price of kale will shoot through the roof. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. I can’t wait.