Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Green Owl Cafe

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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Psychedelic Healing Shack

Psychedelic Healing Shack
18700 Woodward (S. of 7 Mile), Detroit, MI
QISA (3.5, 3.5, 3.5, 3.5), $7-12, Vegetarian

There is so much to describe about the Psychedelic Healing Shack and Vegetarian Café that I honestly don’t know where to begin. I have facts to relay, experiences to share, opinions to opine, colors to comment on, and, and…perhaps it would be better to remove all emotion and simply document my evening.

I entered the establishment at night so unfortunately I could not experience the full effect of the colorful hippie paint job covering the entire restaurant. Please note that “hippie paint job” is not an opinion. The proprietors describe themselves as hippies, so I am not making a judgement here, good or bad. But I digress.

I entered the colorful establishment, walking past the log bench, pond, rock garden, and tree house. I stopped at the Goddess Herb Shop in the center of the building until a nice lady, who first asked if I was there to see Dr. Bob, pointed me to the restaurant to the right. The small cafe comprised a single table, a bar next to the kitchen, a piano, a set of hand drums, and a guitar. Since the lone table was occupied by a college-age couple, I sat down at the bar and selected one of the paper menus. These menus, I should note, were printed upside down on the inside, so I immediately had to turn the entire thing over after opening it. After perusing the selections, I opted for the Namaste Nachos and the Euphoric Cacao Smoothie. Again, these are not judgements. These are actual menu items.

The young slightly scruffy Caucasian chef with medium-long hair stepped to the bar to take my order. He disappeared again to make the nachos.

A shabby-looking, late middle-aged African-American man named “Freddie” (not his real name), with missing front teeth and many layers of pre-owned winter clothing, ambled across the room mumbling to himself. Freddie was greeted by name by the chef and was told that Chuck (possibly his real name, I can’t actually remember) would be here soon to take him home. Freddie wandered behind the bar, muttering loudly about the chef (who he obviously trusted), about music, about Chuck (wherever he was), about the floor, about food, about straws, about well, at a certain point I found it both impolite to listen and impossible to understand him.

Dr. Bob (Dr. Robert Pizzimenti), who owns the entire establishment, came over to say hello and shake my hand. Dr. Bob is a chiropractor who also sells medicinal herbs, serves organic food, and hosts musical events; all part of the healing process. Dr. Bob made sure I knew about their two types of bean soups and lectured me a bit about the healing power of food. He also mentioned that he was running for mayor of Detroit. Dr. Bob left to go take care of something in another part of the building.

The chef stepped out from the kitchen to go find more tortilla chips. The chef came back.

Freddie then came out from the bar and plucked out a tune on the piano. He then picked up the guitar and played something slightly bluesy and almost music.

The chef brought me out my nachos and then went back into the kitchen to start making my smoothie. I casually noticed that the chalkboard menu included “vegatable soup” and “lentel soup.”

A quartet of college kids (four attractive women and one obviously friend-zoned male) came out from a back room and took their place at the table. The friend-zoned male picked up the guitar and played a pretty melody. Freddie ambled over to greet them. One of the pretty blondes mentioned that it was her birthday. Freddie smiled a toothless grin and gave her a big hug. He then proceeded to give the other pretty blond a hug. The aforementioned Chuck came in to the restaurant and told Freddie it was time to go home. Chuck, a self-described hippie who was seemingly stamped from the same mold as David Cross and Robert Picardo, sized me up at the bar, asked why I was there, and then commented on my white Garmin Vivofit 3 which he had initially mistaken for a hospital band. I realized that he was simply trying to figure out how many people he was driving home that evening.

The chef brought out my smoothie. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were playing on the loudspeaker.

Chuck sent Freddie to the back room to wait for him and then apologized to the college kids. “Freddie has a problem with drinking. But then we all have problems, right?” Chuck then proceeded to take on the role as hippie guru, asking the kids what drugs they were into these days, dropping bits of wisdom like, “you know what the new high is these days? Sobriety!”, and comparing notes with the kids on the effects of recreational Adderall.

Freddie came back into the room, walked behind the bar, and proceeded to take things in and out of containers, all while carrying on a barely audible, but clearly intentional dialog to himself. Chuck continued to lecture the kids. I ate my nachos and drank my smoothie.

Dr. Bob came back from his chiropractic office on the other side of the building to help serve food, chat with the kids, and encourage Chuck to take Freddie home. Chuck then came over to me to have a more amiable, less suspicious conversation about where I was from, how I found the place, and what were the origins of my surname. The Millenials jumped into to help him guess. “Polish,” said one girl. “Irish,” said the birthday girl. “German,” said the brunette female. “My friend’s name is also Winicur,” the birthday girl mentioned. “And she is from…” I prompted. There were a full 3 milliseconds of silence. “Russian,” I finally handed them. “Zev,” I told them, “is a Hebrew name.” The kids went back to their food and standard Millennial banter while Chuck told me all about his Chasidic friend who could party like the best of them.

And then I blinked and Chuck, Freddie, the Millennials, and Dr. Bob disappeared. I paid the Chef and left. That was my evening.

The food and smoothie were quite decent, although not terribly exotic or creatively blended. The nachos were tasty and piled high, a mix of chips, black bean chili, cheese, lettuce, onions, and a hot sauce that tasted suspiciously like Taco Bell’s packet sauce. The smoothie, made from almond milk, banana, and cacao powder, was thick and chocolately like a Wendy’s Frosty, just without the carrageenan, fat, or bourgeois commercialism aftertaste.

Will I come back? Most definitely. How often am I personally greeted by the owner of the establishment? How often do I get to hear a hippie engineer lecture on drugs, travel, and changing the world? How often do I get a dramatic soliloquy from an inebriated transient in the safe, controlled confines of a kitchen?

However, I understand if the Psychedelic Healing Shack is just not your bag. A groovy righteous establishment like this is probably too fab for you squares. I’m sure there’s a McDonald’s down the street somewhere.