Many Madisonians - vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters alike - have lamented the demise of long-ago favorite Savory Thymes on Willy Street. Thus, the arrival of the vegetarian Green Owl Café is being loudly welcomed. Proprietor Jennie Capellaro is known for her vegan soups, served at Alchemy and Mother Fool's, and now has expanded her repertoire to a full menu.
The Green Owl lives in the former Anchor Inn space in Schenk's Corners. The nondescript faade leads to a surprisingly hip, big-city vibe inside. Bright green and yellow walls provide a backdrop for modern lamps, cork floors and other retro touches. The style extends to the bar menu; you can get organic wine and beer with your meal, or even a specialty cocktail made from local vodka and kombucha.
The Green Owl has a few notable appetizers, including the daily spread and bread plate. The walnut pesto was absolutely delicious, creamy with a slight tang. More slices of bread or some crudites would be a good addition - I had a lot of pesto left over. The "crabby cakes," tofu and mushroom patties sauced with chipotle remoulade and an essential squeeze of lemon, had great flavor. Their texture was a little mushy; a crispier outside would have created a pleasant balance.
As Capellaro is known for her soups, they are, of course, highlighted here. The curried lentil was gently seasoned, but when I tried the daily vegetarian chili - white bean on that particular day - it was positively palate-torching. I was warned about the "kick" by the waitress, but that word didn't scale with what I ate. What I could taste of the chili had pleasantly fresh flavors of tomato and cilantro. A side of sour cream or cheese (vegan or otherwise) would be a calming complement to the spice.
The café offers a salad bar and sandwiches at lunch, and adds a handful of entrees for the dinner crowd. The sandwiches and entrees, in my visits, have been inconsistent. The vegan schnitzel's mushroom sauce successfully gussied up a nondescript fake-chicken-like patty, and sides of roasted potatoes and green beans were well prepared. A veggie "meatball" sub had what looked like falafel inside (the meatballs, according to the menu, were made with eggplant) and tasted as much like a meatball as eggplant can. I liked it better than an actual meatball sub.
Less triumphant was a daily special, ginger "chicken" fried rice, which was beautiful to look at - with the colors of red pepper, purple cabbage, green beans, edamame and more - but so overdosed with soy sauce that it was too salty to enjoy. The veggie dog, which inhabits both the kids' and the regular menu, proved unappealing enough to a notoriously unpicky child in our party that he wouldn't try more than a bite. (I had to agree with his assessment.) A side of the "daily green" - that day, spinach sautéed in garlic and white wine - came out a disappointing, overcooked khaki.
The café makes two homemade vegan desserts daily, but unfortunately they were all sold out when I requested one. I did get to try a black peppercorn walnut biscotti, whose pepper was too subtle to detect, and an indulgent chocolate Sheba bar made by the Willy Street Co-op, which if you haven't tasted, you should.
I was left feeling unsatisfied but hopeful about the Green Owl. The restaurant looks great and has a worthy concept. Vegetarians deserve more dining-out options than one throwaway pasta dish. But I'd rather see more entrees that are simply based around vegetables and grains - like the tempting stuffed red pepper with Moroccan tomato sauce - instead of a long list of meat substitutes. The Green Owl's website promises "vegetarian cuisine for people who love food." To me, that does not mean processed products of indeterminate provenance masquerading as meat.
It's understandably difficult for a vegetarian restaurant to open during the bitter Wisconsin winter. Here's hoping that warmer weather brings more simple, vegetable-centered fare to the Green Owl's menu and elbows a few of those fake meats right off.