Start with a cozy, quaint eating area flooded with natural light complete with a mosaic tiled countertop at the cash register and an entire wall coated in black chalkboard paint serving as a communal note pad. Sprinkle in a kitchen staff of hippie-ish East Siders with a knack for high-quality food and a deep passion for supporting local, organic farmers. Toss in a seasonally rotating menu featuring daily specials which highlight peak-season produce, a sandwich menu happily adapted to please vegan diners, and a creative drink menu boasting much more for vegans than a boring soy milk latte. You know what you just created? The Mermaid Cafe.
Perhaps the owner, Lisa Jacobson, may not remember directing my vegetable chopping at REAP’s Farm-to-School volunteer program, but sure enough, I prepared healthy snacks for elementary school children with produce donated by local farmers under her supervision. In the hopes that she will one day recognize me as she pens down my order at the counter and offer me a job or internship of some sort, I patronize the Mermaid quite often, not only to humor my unlikely wishes, but to support our local farmers (the Mermaid even recieves a CSA box from Driftless Organics), and sample some truly delicious food.
After picking me up from my first week as a counselor at Phantom Lake, she treated me to a long-awaited meal of something other than casserole. While the “Tree Hugger”–a icy mix of coffee, soy milk, agave nectar, and maple syrup–appealed to the clever name lover in me, I decided against a beverage as I prefer not to drink thirty minutes before and after meals to aid digestion and nutrient absorption (read more here). Instead, I ordered the daily soup special of vegetarian lentil dahl and a deconstructed version of the New Dehli Deli which usually contains turkey, avocado, tomato, onion, and lettuce drizzled with a curry aioli on whole wheat bread. Almost completely changing the sandwich and verily confusing the good-spirited barista, I opted for their curry-marinated tofu in place of the turkey and omitted the aioli. Sigh. Vegans always have complicated orders. My mother straightforwardly requested the Bahn Meatless–a vegetarian play on the traditional Vietnamese Bahn Mi swapping tofu for the roast beef–with no variations and a bran muffin that caught her eye at the last minute.
Spun with a South American flair to twist up the Indian classic, the dahl featured bright Spanish flavors accentuated by the fresh burst of cilantro sprinkled on top. While some dahls can err on the heavy side packed with beans and curry powder, this light version of the legume soup highlighted sweet carrots, smooth red lentils, the perfect hint of curry flavor, and a touch of cumin-esque spices. A lovely commencement to a summery welcome-back-to-Madison lunch.
An impeccable example of a simple yet mouthwatering sandwich, my vegan take on the New Dehli Deli left me immensely satisfied thanks to the flavor-packed tofu, the chewy sourdough bread, and the creamy avocado (frankly, if you slapped avocado on a boot I’d gladly eat it). I half wished that some sort of vegan dressing had replaced the curry aioli, though the curry-marinated tofu and avocado offered enough moisture to save the sandwich from any dryness. Though some potato chips lurked in the background of my sandwich, I ignored the greasy, salty snack and thought that a side of mixed greens with a light dressing would complement the sandwich quite nicely. Perhaps something to offer as an option on their future menu?
Meal Checklist: Protein–tofu and lentils. Whole Grain–whole wheat bread. Vegetables–carrot, tomato, avocado, lettuce, onion. Leafy Green–lettuce? Kind of a sad excuse.
My mother’s Bahn Meatless came served on a french baguette topped with a daikon radish and carrot slaw, cilantro, cucumber, mayonnaise, and tofu. She had been eyeing the sandwich since our last excursion to the Mermaid and long-awaited menu item certainly lived up to her expectations. The crusty-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside bread exquisitely sopped up the juice from the slaw to create a perfectly moist sandwich. However, my mother (an avid muffin lover), preferred the bran muffin sprinkled with flax seeds, chock full of raisins, and topped with a pecan half to the sandwich. I should have known.
As I previously alluded, the Mermaid Cafe will launch a new menu on September 1st and begin dinner service on Tuesdays through Saturdays. If their nightly menu continues to offer seasonal, local, organic products served with the same passion, care, and skill that their well-established lunch and brunch menus do, then I expect great success and a long future for the Mermaid. Now maybe Lisa will make me a co-owner.
Until next time, Ali.