In an age when people still can't seem to get enough bacon, Forage Kitchen is a breath of fresh air.
With its vegetable and grain-driven menu, plus "superfoods" like bee pollen, edamame, acai berries and the ever-humble kale, Forage provides a nourishing — and tasty — alternative to Madison's downtown fast food scene.
Located on lower State Street in the 600 block, Forage Kitchen was opened in October by Henry Aschauer and Doug Hamaker, owners of Roast Public House, the popular sandwich and beer bar up the street. Aschauer and Hamaker met their freshman year of college at UW-Madison in 2006 and shortly after started scheming about opening a restaurant together.
After moving away to New York City (Aschauer) and Chicago (Hamaker), the pair returned to Madison to open Roast in 2012. Even then, Hamaker had the idea for Forage, but they decided to focus on their artisan sandwich shop first.
"We kept the idea for Forage in the back of our heads," Aschauer said. And when a real estate opportunity came along last year, they jumped on it.
In a clean and airy space, Forage's ordering counter is accentuated by a gleaming tile back splash, stainless steel appliances and handing globe lights. Those dining in should grab a seat at one of the wooden tables shared by an adorable, potted succulent and eavesdrop on the sorority girls at the next table describing the previous evening's shenanigans.
The menu at Forage Kitchen focuses on salads, grain bowls (basically salads with grains) and acai bowls (fruit, granola and house-made hemp milk.)
The Forbidden Forager salad featured baby spinach, chili-lime roasted broccoli, forbidden black rice, carrot, cucumber, edamame, smoked pepitas (pumpkin seeds), sunflower sprouts and Thai basil pesto. With an understated amount of dressing, the roasted broccoli added most of the flavor to this healthy-tasting salad.
For $9 it was a lot of food. Leftovers could provide another small meal.
The Loco-Lime Caesar ($10.50) has kale, cilantro-lime poblano and purple cabbage slaw, chickpea croutons, goji-chipotle tempeh, avocado, and lime Caesar dressing. The amount of dressing on this salad was much more generous, which in this case, was a good thing; the hearty, chewy raw kale could handle it. The crunchy chickpeas and well-seasoned tempeh added a lot of texture and protein to this salad.
If I had been smart enough to eat this healthy in college, this would have been my go-to meal. Aschauer said their most popular salad is the Batatas Rancheros ($10.50). Among other things, it includes sweet potatoes, fresh corn, black beans and roasted jerk chicken, with cashew dill ranch dressing.
Another option at Forage is to create your own meal. Start with a base of greens or grains (quinoa or rice) and then choose four other items like lentils, roasted beets, sweet potatoes, marinated fennel or red peppers and a house-made dressing.
With a base price of $6.50, this is the most economical option, although adding proteins (hard-boiled egg, tempeh, chicken or shrimp) or "premium fixin's" (like goat cheese, pepitas, or chickpea croutons) comes with an extra cost.
In addition to standing out for its menu with lots of fresh, healthy choices, Forage Kitchen is light years ahead of most Madison restaurants in terms of its environmental footprint. The to-go containers and silverware are plant-based (except for plastic lids) and there is a place to compost any leftover food.
Aschauer, who wishes the city offered this as an option to all restaurants, said they compost with Sanimax. That company processes the restaurant's waste and sells it to Purple Cow.
Forage Kitchen creates a space in the crowded meat-centric food culture of Madison. If you didn't know what tempeh was when you were in college, it's not too late to learn now.