Last winter, the Madison food scene decided to explode with a cornucopia of new restaurants inspired by the local, organic food movement: Graze, a gastropub opened by the L’Etoile executive chef and my culinary idol Tory Miller; Nostrano, a modern Italian-inspired menu of which my furiously Italian family approves and even admires; Underground Kitchen, a casual dining room with family-style seating which specializes in charcuterie but offers some of the most delectably prepared vegetables I’ve ever tasted; 43 North, a curiously eclectic creation from the owners of Muramoto which I sadly have not sampled yet; and Merchant, a trendy cocktail bar merged with a gourment international grocery store all rolled into a scrumptious restaurant. You can imagine my absolute glee at these new establishments and my almost obsessive urge to patronize each of them…perhaps all five over the course of three days? I certainly saw nothing wrong with that, but apparently my mother did and completely shattered my foodie heart, condemning me to an eternity of waiting to sink my teeth into a new mix of Madison culinary creations.
Since its opening, I have eaten a Merchant a good handful of times, leaving quite pleased after each meal. Their crispy rendition of lemony roasted brussels sprouts rivals my famous recipe for the mini cabbages, while their farro risotto with braised kale never ceases to amaze me. Maybe I just appreciate the little note in the corner of their menu expressing their willingness to convert several menu items into vegan-friendliness, or perhaps I’ve simply fallen in love with the fact that their menu constantly features leafy greens in the form of kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, or mixed salad greens. In any case, the hip atmosphere complimented by live music nights and exquisite healthy food catapulted Merchant right to the top of my “dependable restaurants” list.
My good friend Connor accompanied me to Merchant for this particular lunchtime endeavor since he had spent the past year in Germany and therefore needed to be introduced to the up-and-coming Madison restaurants. After perusing the menu, Connor decided on the warm artichoke sandwich and a small farmers market green mix salad with a chili-citrus vinaigrette. After inquiring which menu items the kitchen could serve as vegan (a completely unnecessary question as I’ve asked the exact same one every time I’ve eaten at Merchant, but their staff also happens to be incredibly attractive so the more waiter-Ali interaction, the better!), I opted for my favorite farro risotto (without the pecorino cheese), a large farmers market green mix salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, and a small side of vegetable slaw which my adorable waiter referred to as “awesome.”
My salad came out first unaccompanied by Connor’s, much to his dismay as he had not eaten breakfast that morning and may have scarfed down my left arm if I had allowed my attention to wane for a moment. A generous handful of beautifully deep green mixed lettuces topped with thinly sliced radishes and drizzled in a traditional tangy balsamic vinaigrette, the salad adequatly commenced my meal. I only wish that carrots or another crunchy veggie had replaced the radishes, as I don’t much care for their unpleasantly spicy bite (radishes complete the triad of the only vegetables I don’t enjoy, along with green bell peppers and kohlrabi). My waiter served the risotto and slaw at the same time, creating a marvelous bounty of mouthwateringly green plates to surround me. First of all, let me say that I adore the fact that Merchant serves farro. FARRO, everyone. Not white arborio rice, no sir, not in their risottos. The popular Italian whole grain lends a nutty, delightfully chewy flavor and texture to the dish, complimented by the deeply flavored unctuous braised kale, the salty kick of black olives, and the spicy zing of green wax peppers. Somehow, I suspect that the pecorino cheese may shove this plate over to the “too salty” camp. Yet another dish that should have been vegan in the first place. In between bites of yummy farro, I refreshed my palate with my incredibly light vegetable slaw. A crunchy, fresh mix of thinly sliced green cabbage, tender pea shoots, freshly shelled peas, peanuts, and walnuts marinated in a chili-citrus vinaigrette, this slaw happily strayed from the orthodox mayonnaise-laden version. Awesome, just as my waiter promised.
Meal Checklist: Protein–Ehh, I suppose none. Though kale and farro do contain significant amounts. Whole Grain–farro. Vegetables–peas, radishes, peppers. Leafy Greens–mixed salad greens, kale, green cabbage.
Connor’s meal left him much less impressed. However, I’m not especially certain that I believe all of his criticisms seeing as he has a tendency to nit-pick…excessively…and asserts that he is correct in everything he says. Nonetheless, I give you the Connor-cisms: “Well, if I had to rate this sandwich on a scale of one to ten based solely on appearance, I’d give it a ten. But on taste? Maybe a five. The mozzerella is obviously old, the artichokes only tasted like can, and there was way too much sweet red pepper relish. Plus my salad never came!” Okay, Mister Complainer. I suppose he has a legitimate claim about his missing salad, as he separately ordered a farmers market mix salad to start but only received a small side salad with his sandwich. I choose to give my lovely waiter the benefit of the doubt and assume that he thought that Connor requested the salad instead of soup option to accompany the sandwich instead of as a completely different menu item. Connor’s “old mozzerella” statement, however, makes absolutely no sense to me seeing as the Merchant menu clearly advertises “house-pulled mozzerella.” House-pulled=fresh, mm-kay Connor? Great.
As I harbor a great fear of taking anyone out to eat somewhere that they end up not enjoying, Connor greatly relieved my anxiety when he confessed his wish of returning to Merchant to sample another menu offering in the hopes of improvement from his so-called mediocre sandwich. Me? I’ll willingly serve as his dining companion once again at the casual yet upscale, seasonal, local, and friendly Merchant.