Green Owl Anniversary Dinner

Today’s post is the last in a rather long series of restaurant review posts. I swear, S and I aren’t restaurant-hopping spendthrifts, throwing fistfuls of money at every dining establishment with a vegan option! We happened to be traveling for work at the same time in February, and then it was our two-year anniversary and I had a Groupon for The Green Owl, so we just had to get dinner there! But I promise – I’ll get back to basics soon and cool it with the restaurant posts*.

I’ve mentioned The Green Owl more than a few times, but I think I’ve only blogged about it once. The Green Owl is Madison’s only vegetarian restaurant, and a high percentage of their menu items are either already vegan or can be made vegan with ease. I love supporting the place, but I do think that some of their dishes are overpriced considering the portion size and the quality. There are standouts, however, that are totally worth their cost: the Crabby Cake Po’Boy and BBQ Jackfruit sandwiches are top-notch in my book, while S prefers the Italian Beef sandwich. And you’d be a real idiot if you passed on their kale crisps, which are always crunchy, flavorful, and highly addictive. Where The Green Owl really stands out is its dessert menu… but I’ll get to that soon!

Our anniversary fell on a Tuesday, which is (apparently) taco night. I couldn’t resist ordering the tacos, which featured a soy-based chorizo, lettuce, and avocado in corn tortillas. They came with a side of beans and rice and small bowls of vegan sour cream and their house pineapple pico de gallo.

Plate filled with three tacos, rice and beans, and two small metal bowls of vegan sour cream and pico de gallo.

Taco Tuesday!

To be honest, the pineapple pico was probably the best part of this dish. The tacos weren’t anything too special; I could easily make them at home with little fuss. And the “beans and rice” was disappointing – it was literally a pile of barely seasoned black beans alongside a scoop of brown rice. Again, totally fine for something I’d make at home when I wanted a simple dinner, but not what I particularly want to receive as a paying customer at a restaurant! At least I had a pomegranate cocktail to keep me in good spirits. ;)

S ordered the TLT with avocado, served on locally made bread.

Sandwich cut diagonally, alongside a helping of roasted baby red potatoes.

TLT!

I’ve had this before, and it’s perfectly serviceable but nothing mind-blowing. S chose roasted red potatoes as a side – a wise choice, second in quality only to the kale chips! S also ordered a Manhattan. You can see it in the corner, inexplicably served in a small tumbler. When he ordered the drink, our waitress said, “Hmm, I think she knows how to make that!” Not exactly confidence-inspiring, and a Manhattan is not exactly an exotic drink!

Although our meals didn’t boast the most inspiring flavors or quality, our desserts made the entire dinner worthwhile. I ordered a margarita cheesecake that was truly phenomenal.

Small sliver of vegan cheesecake with a thin, translucent topping served alongside a small dollop of vegan whipped cream.

I’m drooling right now.

Bursting with fresh lime flavor, this luscious, creamy cheesecake hit all the right notes. I absolutely loved that it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet. The head pastry chef at The Green Owl constantly produces some of the most creative and consistently drool-worthy vegan cheesecake creations I’ve ever had, and this one was one of my all-time favorites. She doesn’t just do cheesecakes, though – all her desserts are equally delicious. S took the cake route and ordered some sort of mocha cake.

Dark-colored three-layer cake with chocolaty frosting. Served with a dollop of vegan whipped cream and two chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Served with chocolate-covered espresso beans!

Although I preferred my cheesecake, this was definitely a standout dessert too. Cakes at The Green Owl are always perfectly moist, with just the right frosting-to-cake ratio.

While not every dish at The Green Owl is a winner, those that are winners win big. No omnivore could try a dessert at The Green Owl and think that vegan baked goods are inferior to their traditional counterparts, and the favorites I listed earlier are consistently high-quality dishes. Even though I have some qualms with The Green Owl’s prices, I’ll still be back for more! Here’s hoping the margarita cheesecake is on the menu next time…!

Do you have easy access to any delicious vegan desserts?

*Sorta. I’ll be in Rhode Island next weekend, and on Sunday my friend is holding a birthday brunch at a restaurant with multiple vegan breakfast options, soooo………

The Chicago Diner, Except in Madison

Somehow, despite my shameful silence, my blog is getting a consistently decent number of hits every day. Thank you! And I’m sorry for the quietness. I don’t exactly feel burnt out from VeganMoFo, but I do feel… well, distracted. There are lots of other exciting things happening in my life and my friends’ and family’s lives, and blogging has fallen by the wayside. But! Eating, of course, is still very much center stage (if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphors).

Recently I’ve realized that despite living in Madison for just about three years, I still don’t know all of its veg-friendly secrets. And to think I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to finding vegan eats! But I didn’t know about Bloom till I moved to Middleton this summer, and S and I just made our first trip to the Asian grocery store and discovered its hidden treasures (fresh tofu! rice noodles galore! those black sesame seeds that are inexplicably absent from every other grocery around here!).

And I only recently discovered that our Whole Foods carries pre-made sandwiches and sliced desserts from the Chicago Diner. Desserts like this amazing mixed-berry cheesecake:

Three-quarter view of a rich purple cheesecake topped with blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries.

The Chicago Diner by way of Madison.

We’ve also tried two chocolate layer cake slices, one layered with peanut butter cream and the other with a rich, fudgy ganache-like frosting. Delicious, but a little too heavy for me, which prompted my choosing the cheesecake this weekend. That was perfection – creamy, fresh, and just light enough to keep me from feeling queasy. The perfect accompaniment to an episode of Star Trek. ;)

What fun discoveries have you made yesterday?

Friday is Pizza Day: Vegan Thai Pie Pizza

Orange rectangle with the white fist-shaped Vegan MoFo logo and the text "Vegan Month of Food 2012."

By the time I left work yesterday, I knew three things for certain: I was tired and a bit headachy, I didn’t feel like cooking, and I wanted a very particular take-out pizza for dinner. As S and I drove home, I broached the topic:

Me: So, are you hungry now?

S: Um… not really. You?

Me: No. But when I am, I won’t feel like cooking… and I bet you won’t either…

S: You know what our option is.

Me: What? What is our option?

S: Vegan Thai Pie.

Me: Yesss, I was hoping you’d say that! I’ve been dreaming of it for the past two hours!

S: Really?! I thought you’d reject it outright!

Me: Nope!

Normally, S would’ve been right – I’m nearly always the one who balks at eating out. But I’d already dropped a fair chunk of change yesterday day to pay off one of my [admittedly smaller] student loans, and spending a couple more dollars on dinner seemed like a good way to celebrate.

S called in our order to Glass Nickel Pizza Co. and agreed, darling that he is, to pick up the pizza while I got a workout in. What a champ. So while he drove out to get our dinner, I spent some QT at our complex’s fitness center (read: room with some rickety old exercise machines from the eighties, a rack of free weights, and a single all-purpose weight machine).. Not long after I returned, S and our pizza arrived.

White plate with two slices of fully loaded pizza.

That’s the pizza, not S.

To my knowledge, Glass Nickel was the first local pizzeria to offer Daiya – I blogged about it earlier this year. Since then, they’ve also introduced the vegan version of their popular Thai pie.  The Vegan Thai Pie features cilantro, Daiya, tofu, broccoli, carrots, red pepper, and yellow onion. It’s topped with chopped peanuts and features a spicy peanut sauce in lieu of a tomato-based sauce.

It’s amazing. It’s a perfect pizzafication of pad thai. I love it.

Seriously, it’s one of the best pizza-joint pizzas I’ve ever eaten. I love that Glass Nickel offers such a creative vegan option! Honestly, though, the Daiya is a bit extraneous – the rest of the pie’s flavors are more than robust enough to keep it interesting, and Daiya just gets in the way. My only other nit-picky issue is with the tofu – it’s pretty plain; if Glass Nickel marinated it and chopped it into smaller cubes, the pizza would be out-of-this-world delicious. But those are minor quibbles – I might submit my suggestions to Glass Nickel, but if I do, I’ll be sure to thank them more than profusely for even offering the Thai Pie. Gotta encourage the vegan friendliness!

What’s the most creative pizza combo you’ve eaten? Do any of your local pizza places offer creative vegan options like this one?

Quick Hit: Sweet Treats at the Green Owl

Yikes, y’all. I’m sorry for the silence – I started off strong this month, but then packing and planning and a month’s worth of deadlines at work got in the way. I’ve got a couple big posts up my sleeves, but in the meantime, allow me to rave about some delicious treats from the Green Owl.

I don’t talk about the Green Owl often enough – it’s Madison’s only vegetarian restaurant, and it’s extremely vegan friendly. It’s my go-to eatery when veg-curious friends and family visit, both for its tasty entrees and its consistently delicious desserts. The Green Owl always has droolworthy vegan sweets available, and although they’re a little pricy, they’re rich, decadent, and well worth the occasional indulgence.

This past Friday S and I enjoyed post-dinner snacks (kale crisps for me, a cup of chili for S) and dessert after a busy week. My mango cheesecake was perfect – creamy but not too sweet and topped with a mango puree that made my mango-lovin’ self go nuts. Even the crust was special, a ginger-coconut blend that hit all the right tropical notes.

A thin sliver, but oh-so-filling!

S enjoyed the coconut cream pie, a Green Owl staple that doesn’t skimp on the coconut and is, quite frankly, almost too rich for me. But I definitely swiped a few bites from his piece. ;)

Coconutty!

Do you have a go-to veg-friendly eatery, or is your town rife with vegan options?

Restaurant Review: Lazy Jane’s Café

Left to my own devices, I’d go out to eat very rarely. I’m frugal by nature, and I have a hard time justifying the hit to my bank account when I can make my own meals for so much less money. I want my restaurant excursions to be special! I think this is partly because my parents didn’t have a whole lot of money when I was a young kid, so any time we went out to eat, it was a memorable and notable experience, so I still have a lingering (if diminished) sense that going out to eat should be special.

When I started dating S, though, I found myself hitting up restaurants more often. Although we enjoyed making dinner together at one of our apartments, there’s also something uniquely enjoyable about sitting in a totally different place and focusing on one another, not on preparing your meal. Plus, it reduces the tension that often arises in the kitchen – I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to cooking (stop laughing, family and friends who might be reading this!), and have a hard time biting my tongue if someone’s doing something in what I consider a less than optimal manner. Although I’d never have called S out on a perceived inefficiency when we were first dating, we’ve been together for well over a year now, and all bets are off. :) But eating in restaurants precludes the temptation to criticize S for not putting water to boil while chopping veggies, which I’m sure we can all agree is a huge inefficiency. ;)

Anyway, a few months ago I decided we should further cut down our eating out, preferably to only once or twice (or thrice) a month, and that we should plan it and not use it as a fallback for lunch when we’re out running weekend errands or something. So, a few weeks ago, I told S we should go out for brunch at Lazy Jane’s Cafe on a Sunday. We’d been there once before, and I was pleased with my meal and wanted to return to try something else. S loves brunch, so he was more than amenable to the idea. Last time, I ordered a seitan hash, which usually comes with eggs. I replaced the eggs with more hash and received a giant plate of savory, tasty seitan and a side of potatoes. Yummy and incredibly filling.

This time, we both ended up ordering the Curry Tofu Scramble, which comes with a huge side of potatoes and toast. S recently decided to take the vegan plunge <insert fist pump here>, and the scramble is actually the only menu item that’s totally vegan without modifications.

Scramble, scramble scraaamble!

It was a quality scramble. The curry flavor was just spicy enough, with a complex blend of spices and complementary crisp, fresh, perfectly cooked veggies. The potatoes and toast were equally yummy. Lazy Jane’s uses bread from a local bakery, and even though S unknowingly chose a non-vegan bread for his toast, one of the cooks noted his vegan scramble order and kindly toasted up one of the vegan bread options just in case and then asked him which one he wanted – score one for customer service!

Despite its tastiness, I could barely eat a third of my scramble – we’d split a vegan Lemon Cream scone (!) while we waited for our meals, and between it and my delicious mug of coffee, my tummy was getting full when our order arrived. But it was totally worth it – the scone was a lemony dream, and I had scramble leftovers for lunch the next day.

All in all, this visit to Lazy Jane’s was a worthy use of one of our restaurant meals for May. It’s a cute, cozy fast-casual restaurant, so there’s no tip required, which saves a bit of cash. It is, however, always crowded and there’s always a line to order, but I don’t mind – it gives you time to drool over the pastry case, which allegedly always contains one vegan baked good. I do wish there were a few more vegan meals on the menu, though – it’s one of those places that advertises itself as being vegan-friendly, but having only one (and a half) vegan options really just makes you sort of vegan-semi-friendly, y’know?

How often do you go out to eat? What’s your favorite brunch food?

Restaurant Review: Macha Tea House

“Ooh, have you been to Macha?! They give you free cookies if it’s your first visit!” This is what I inevitably hear whenever Macha Tea House comes up in conversation. Needless to say, the thought of free cookies doesn’t thrill me as much as it does my non-vegan friends – odds are slim to none that the cookies are vegan, so I knew that the most pleasure I’d get out of them would be the selfless thrill of giving mine to S and watching him devour two cookies while I sipped my tea. Ho hum. But after hearing more than one friend rave about how cute and quaint and cozy Macha is, S and I decided to check it out for ourselves. We like tea, and we like trying new places – even ones without the allure of free cookies.

Macha is located on Monroe St., a hip neighborhood not quite downtown that still feels bustling and busy. You might recall that I cited it as the location of Pizza Brutta, where I ate my birthday pizza. Macha is set back from the street a bit, in what looks to be a renovated house. This enhances its cozy feel and makes it possible to have a few small tea rooms upstairs, set apart from the more traditional restaurant seating below. The tea rooms are raised slightly, so you have to step up to enter them. You’re encouraged to take off your shoes before entering, which S and I did after ordering at the front desk, receiving our pot of steeping Yunnan tea, and proceeding upstairs.

Each tea room has a low table and a few cushions on the floor, along with bamboo floor mats and Japanese-inspired wall decor. It’s a pleasant, calming atmosphere. S and I chatted and watched the sand in the timer drain as we waited for our tea to steep.

I'm a little teapot, short and square...

When it was done, we poured our tea and sipped it, enjoying the warm sunlight while waiting for our food. The Yunnan tea was delicious – I’m so used to drinking Irish and English black teas that I sometimes forget that there are other varieties out there! Unlike the one-note, almost bitter flavor of an Irish or English black tea, the Yunnan was nuanced and deeply satisfying. And when our food arrived, we eagerly dug in. S ordered the miso soup with tofu, while I enjoyed the donburi bowl with tofu.

Donburi for lunch!

My rice bowl featured jasmine rice, scallion, black sesame, shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, and daikon. I ordered it with a sweet, soy-glazed tofu, which came in large chunks. The whole dish came with a mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil on the side, but I found the sauce almost unnecessary – my bowl was well-seasoned as is. For such a seemingly light and simple meal, I found it surprisingly (and happily) filling. And the price was right – just $6.50 for a tasty lunch. Next time, I’ll forego the tofu and save a dollar.

And there will definitely be a next time – S and I both enjoyed our visit, especially getting to sit in a more private room. Macha also offers tea services, where you can reserve space for a party and receive lots of tea, baked goods, and delicate sandwiches and nibbles. Delightful!

Oh, and those free cookies? Nobody mentioned them! Where did that rumor start?!

Loans & Pizza

Hello! I’m on the other side of 25 and feelin’ fine. In the twoish weeks since my birthday, I’ve already accomplished one of my goals – I paid off a loan! Granted, it was one of my smallest private loans, but it’s GONE. Woo! That rush of minimal-exertion accomplishment felt so good that I’ve decided to pay off my Perkins loan next month, I think. I have the money – I’ve been shoring up my savings account for the past couple years, and even though it’s hard to drop a couple thousand dollars at a time, it’s saving me money in the end because, hello, that interest accrues mighty fast! Anyway, I’m excited to already cross one thing off my list. I’m so productive now that I’m old and mature! Ha ha ha.

So, what did I do on my 25th? Well… I ate pizza. Yes, for my big birthday dinner, I chose pizza. What can I say? I’m a little tired of the vegan options in Madison (appreciative though I am of their existence!), and S had raved about the delectable pizzas that are birthed from the wood-fired ovens at Pizza Brutta on Monroe Street, and I’d been craving a simple, thin-crust pizza with garlic and marinara sauce… so pizza it was. And it was good.

So simple, yet so delicious.

Ahh, the pizza marinara. A perfectly baked crust topped with vibrant crushed tomatoes, basil, oregano, and garlic – exactly what I was craving. Perfection!

Although the pizza was definitely a highlight of my birthday, I also really loved my gifts and talking with my loved ones. I have the best family and friends. They know me so well – many of my gifts were kitchen-related, from the homemade vanilla extract (made with organic vodka!) from my dear friend Nicole to the gorgeous cast-iron pan from S and the double boiler/steamer from my parents. My parents also framed a truly adorable picture of my mom and baby-me, and it now sits in a place of pride on my windowsill, nestled between my basil plant and a photo of me with my best ladyfriends from college. I could go on, but nobody likes to read a litany of someone else’s gifts. :) Suffice it to say that my 25th birthday, though low-key, was wonderful – a great way to usher in this year of Actually Accomplishing Things and Figuring Stuff Out.

Would you prefer an all-out birthday bash or something quieter? And what should I make to showcase the flavor of my new vanilla extract?!

A Tale of Two Pizzas

In a world that existed solely for my blog-writing needs, I’d be able to begin this post with “It was the best of pizzas, it was the worst of pizzas.” I can’t do that, however, because both of the pizzas I’ve eaten in the past couple months have been far from “the worst.” If the trade-off for an expected-yet-amusing opening line is good pizza, I’m okay with that.

If I’m adhering to reality, the closest I can come to that opener is nowhere near as parallel or as catchy: “It was the most eclectic of pizzas, it was the easiest of pizzas.” It’s no Dickens, but it’ll do.

It was the most eclectic of pizzas…

There is so much going on here.

…because it was basically a mish-mash of topping ideas I found on the internet. S and I made this pizza some time in January. His side has mozzarella Daiya, mushrooms, onions, and Tofurky deli slices cut into strips. My side features broccoli, thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes, soy curls, onions, mushrooms, barbecue sauce, and a bit of Daiya. Clearly my side had no uniformity of theme! But you know what? It was awesome! The Daiya was totally unnecessary, but other than that, the random assortment was delightfully surprising. I can’t believe I haven’t put barbecue sauce on pizza before this one! It was so tasty! And potato slices are an equally delicious addition. Mine were the tiniest bit undercooked, but they added a unique textural element I haven’t experienced on pizza before. A revelation!

It was the easiest of pizzas…

Such a fluffy crust!

…because it was a mother-flippin’  TAKE-OUT PIZZA. As far as I know, Glass Nickel Pizza Co. is the first Madison pizza parlor to offer Daiya on a delivery/take-out pizza. Glass Nickel has a location just minutes away from me, so one lazy weekend night, S and I decided to build our own pizza and pick it up there. I really appreciate that Glass Nickel’s online menu clearly calls out which sauces and toppings are vegan – no more wondering whether the marinara sauce has parmesan in it! Their pizzas aren’t exactly cheap, and Daiya does cost a bit extra, but S pointed out that, for ~$20, it’s cheaper than going out to dinner, AND we had leftovers. Sold. This pizza featured Daiya, tomatoes, green peppers, and mushrooms. Yum! It was a bit heavy on the Daiya, but for a rare weekend treat, it was fine by me.

Apologies to the ghost of Charles Dickens for co-opting his powerful and lasting opening line and using it to talk about pizza. Oops?

What was your most recent pizza experience? Your most eclectic toppings?

Restaurant Review: Kabul

Whenever a friend visits Madison for the first time, I always take her on the requisite amble up and down the [mostly] pedestrian-only State Street. Its eight blocks  offer something for every dollar-doler or window-browser, from your standard Gaps and American Apparels to smaller shops with kitschy clothes and accessories. I’m a big fan of Tellus Mater, a locally-owned store packed full of eclectic home goods – their selection of fun kitchen items always elicits at least a few outbursts of delight from me. But perhaps the most alluring aspect of State Street for locals (well, for me, at least) is its selection of eateries. Sure, you can eat at boring ol’ Taco Bell and Chipotle and all your typical chains, but more intrepid eaters appreciate State Street’s glut of more diverse eateries. From Nepalese to Japanese to Greek food, there’s a cuisine to tempt nearly any palate.

I recently rounded out a State Street shopping expedition with a dinner at Kabul. It was a cold, blustery, rainy night, and S and I were more than happy to escape the wind and sit at a cozy table together. Kabul offers Afghani and Mediterranean food, with a dedicated (if small) vegetarian section of its menu. Although many of the vegetarian options feature a yogurt sauce, based on their customer service, I’m sure they’d be more than willing to customize a yogurt dish for vegans. After I asked about the veganness of my meal of choice, my server – unasked! – let me know that there’s egg in their house salad dressing, and she offered to bring me oil and a peach balsamic vinegar instead. How thoughtful!

For my meal, I ordered the Tunisian Spinach Stew, described as fresh spinach cooked with a roasted blend of spices, potatoes and carrots, served with seasoned rice. I received this wonderfully large dish of hearty stew:

Stewpendous! (oh god kill me now)

Including spinach in the title of this dish is a bit misleading, as spinach takes a back seat to the potato and carrot. Spinach dearth aside, this is an absolutely delicious meal. My plate was filled with giant chunks of perfectly cooked, fork-tender carrots and potato, with chickpea and spinach friends to round out the flavors. This wasn’t quite a stew, but there was just enough liquid for bread-dipping. The flavor was terrific – spicy, but not overpoweringly so, with an aromatic blend of spices I couldn’t quite identify. Dill was definitely one (I cheated with that, though, because the dish was garnished with a large fresh dill sprig), and I think there were some sweeter spices like cloves. Whatever they were, they made for a complexly flavored, warm dish, perfect for a cold, rainy evening.

S ordered the Vegetarian Ashak, described as scallion-filled steamed dumplings, topped with green beans and yogurt sauce, sprinkled with mint. He enjoyed them, although he thought the dish was a little heavy on the yogurt sauce. We both rounded out our meal with many cups of delicious, hot tea. It was a fantastic meal, perfect for a blustery night!

What’s your favorite style of food? Do you have very diverse restaurants where you live?

Somewhat Simplicity Sunday: Roman Candle Pizzeria

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

Oh dear! I’m sneaking in right under the wire for this one. I’m just jumpin’ in with a quick review of Roman Candle Pizzeria, a vegan-friendly local pizza joint. Their make-your-own pizza option is great, as they have a variety of delicious toppings and a really tasty spicy fireworks sauce that livens up any creation you come up with. But my go-to option for those times I’m too lazy to create my own concoction is the Vegan Destroyer, which is topped with spinach, toasted pine nuts, mushrooms, red onions, red pepper puree and fresh basil.

Three stacked slices of pizza on a plate.

Pizza 4 me!

I usually get it with the fireworks sauce, but my most recent encounter with the Vegan Destroyer (pictured here!) featured their regular sauce because the spicy sauce always make my nose run, and  S and I were dining out with another couple and I didn’t have a Kleenex with me. :) It was good, but not quite as tasty as it is with the fireworks sauce. Still, I enjoyed my dinner last night and my lunch leftovers today. That’s the best part of ordering pizza, isn’t it?

Do you have a vegan-friendly pizza place near you? What’s your favorite pizza topping?