Eating out at the Green Owl Café feels like eating at home, except that suddenly your mom is a really, really good cook.
Oh, and chicken is off the menu. She’s a vegetarian now.
Madison’s only vegetarian restaurant opened in early December. The bright restaurant space on Winnebago Street is a night-and-day change from its earlier identity as The Anchor, a dive bar and club. The walls of the Green Owl are painted mustard yellow, orange and bright green, adorned with vivid paintings of food and lit with flower-like white pendant lamps from Ikea.
The restaurant is not high-end vegetarian, like the Green Zebra in Chicago or Ubuntu in Napa Valley. Owner and Chef Jennie Capellaro cooks comfort food: spaghetti and “meatballs” made from eggplant; red peppers stuffed with bulgur and lentils; a hearty jambalaya with red beans and tomatoes (all $12).
The dishes we tried at the Green Owl were straightforward, occasionally even revelatory in their simplicity. Curried lentil soup ($4/cup, $5/bowl) was surprisingly light, more like a vegetable soup. A pumpkin white bean soup was mildly sweet, with a nice contrast in texture — the squash was pureed, but the beans were whole and tender. A side of chard ($3.50), wilted quickly with garlic, was perfectly savory, a highlight of the meal.
It’s the kind of food that makes you think, “Why don’t I make this more often?”
Among the appetizers we tried, a dish of Greek haloumi cheese ($6) browned crispy on the outside stood out. It arrived paired with a sticky-sweet duck sauce that balanced out the cheese’s saltiness. Two “crabby” cakes ($6), mushroomy and dense with tofu, would be more accurately compared to falafel. We missed the feta on an otherwise scrumptious Middle Eastern platter with hummus, tabouli and a creamy, smoky baba ganoush ($7.50).
For lunch, the BBQ jackfruit sandwich was sweet and juicy, served on a sturdy ciabatta roll ($8). In an odd twist, one diner said the jackfruit reminded her so much of pulled pork that she wished she was eating that instead.
Among the sandwiches, the vegetarian Italian beef made with house-made seitan (wheat gluten) was the all-around winner, startlingly meaty and decked with a generous amount of spicy giardiniera ($9). A side of crispy kale tasted like a virtuous yet addictive cross between popcorn and potato chips.
While the menu strives to accommodate both vegetarians and their carnivorous companions with protein-rich fare, parts of the menu are confusing; the restaurant does best when it’s straightforward with the descriptions. It would be nice to know what’s in vegan schnitzel, for example. And what’s in a vegan hot dog?
“I wish they would just tell me what I’m eating,” said one of my companions. “If it’s tofu, say tofu, not ‘vegetarian chicken.’”
He had a point. But for my vegetarian friend, eating out with more than three or four options on the menu was overwhelming in its bounty. More than 15 dishes are vegan or can be made that way, in addition to the well-stocked salad bar managed during the lunch hour by smiling staff.
Desserts change frequently, though a server said that five of them are edging into a more permanent rotation. Let’s hope that includes the divinely light vegan cheesecake with caramel sauce and a crumbly cookie crust. Dark chocolate peppermint cake and an orange chocolate mousse cake were also quite good, wonderfully flavorful without being heavy (all $6).
The beverage list includes teas from local purveyor Cha Cha Tea; some organic wines, like sweet Snoqualmie riesling out of Washington state ($6.75); Blue Sky sodas; kombucha and gluten-free and organic beers.
Comforting and a little decadent, meals at the Green Owl are a weeknight treat, fitting a worthy niche. It’s just like Mom used to make, but better.
GREEN OWL CAFE
Address: 1970 Winnebago St.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Cuisine: Vegetarian comfort food
Prices: Lunch, $3.50- $9; Dinner entrees, $12-13