Two doors down from the cartoon owl-flanked bright kelly-green exterior of The Green Owl Cafe lurks the mysterious, dark-paneled, glowing orange visage of Alchemy Cafe. My good friend Dana attested to numerous outings to the restaurant with fabulous results, but perhaps the fact that the eatery also served as a bar frightened me away. Completely devoid of nutrition and full of empty calories, alcohol appeals to me in no manner whatsoever, so I don’t spend too much of my time bar-hopping. Mira, one of my eating companions for the day, shared my inquietude and demanded, “Will they even let us eat lunch there if we’re under 21?” But on this particular day, a reckless notion bubbled up inside of me and I wanted to dive into uncharted restaurant territory. Besides, Alchemy partners with REAP, sources tons of local products and produce, and specifies vegan menu options. With that in mind, I took the plunge into the murky waters of Alchemy Cafe with Mira and Maria for lunch.
Stepping into Alchemy introduces a surprisingly bright space with classy wood paneling and a large, ornate mirror covering the wall opposite a small bar on a raised platform—certainly not what I expected based on the imposing, pitch-black, bass-thumping atmosphere of my imagination. With the sun shining outside invitingly, we surveyed the buzzing room for all of about two seconds before requesting an outdoor table from a bouncy waitress with two tight hair buns in a blue polka-dot dress.
I obediently followed the “VG” menu markings, easily zeroing in on the wasabi green beans and the Maize salad, a dish I had read about in the Isthmus as one of the dishes they “can’t stop ordering in Madison restaurants.”
“You’ve never tasted garbanzo beans this good before. Alchemy’s maize salad serves garbanzos marinated in chile, lime and cilantro over a bed of crisp mixed greens. Additional veggies (red pepper, red onion and roma tomatoes) make the salad pretty and bright, but the savory topping that pulls it all together is the roasted corn and shallot vinaigrette. It complements and doesn’t overpower the other flavors. Generous as a main dish, this salad delivers protein and produce in a very tasty package.” — Kathy Bailey
As chickpeas win the title of Ali’s favorite legume, how could I possibly pass up this salad?
Maria, an avid squash lover, chose the Matilda sandwich with a side of buttermilk-mashed potatoes while Mira opted for the stuffed grilled cheese with no broccoli (man, do I give the girl hell for not liking broccoli), and a side of french fries.
These chickpeas undoubtedly lived up to their critically acclaimed scrumptiousness. The lime and cilantro marinade brightly prepares the bean for its complex, deeply flavored vinaigrette before engaging the tastebuds in a battle between the roasted corn “devil” and the chili citrus “angel”—a tantalizing war of good and evil served on a bed of greens. Paired with local sweet red onions, crunchy red bell pepper, and juicy heirloom tomatoes, the Maize definitely earns a slot on my list of best restaurant salads. I only wish that the corn vinaigrette had been tossed with the greens instead of simply drizzled on top to more effectively pull all the ingredients together. As for the wasabi green beans, they tasted wonderfully fresh and perfectly tender-crisp with a subtle golden brown flavor, but I missed the alleged wasabi component altogether.
Meal Checklist: Protein–chickpeas. Whole Grain–none. But when a restaurant offers no whole grain on a menu, I’d rather forgo all grains than settle for a refined one. Vegetables–tomatoes, red onions, red bell peppers, green beans. Leafy Greens–mixed salad greens.
Maria’s Matilda sandwich came piled high with grilled local summer squash, tomatoes, and red onion topped with basil and melted swiss cheese, oozing with herbed gorgonzola dressing. Paired with a generous heap of skin-on buttermilk mashed potatoes, the meal filled Maria to the brim, inspiring her content claim, “Yeah, I’m not eating dinner tonight.” Offering a pleasing contrast between soft, juicy, and crunchy textures, the sandwich’s only flaw dripped all over Maria’s mouth and chin: “I wish the dressing would stay in the sandwich because it tastes SO GOOD!” I also appreciated the swanky addition of black sesame seeds instead of the classic white to top the sandwich bun.
Hidden by a mountain of thin-sliced french fries, Mira’s grilled sourdough—stuffed with roasted carrot, tomato, red onion, and cilantro pesto sauce with local Carr Valley swiss and cheddar cheese—resided on a mere fourth of her potato-ravaged plate. She commented on the perfectly crunchy bread and waved her cheeseless fingers in Maria’s gorgonzola-covered face. With my help, Mira finished off her french fry metropolis. Nine times out of ten, I say no to fried food because of its high fat content and its tendency to give me a headache, but I hadn’t eaten french fries in about 6 months plus these were very high quality. Crispy-skinned on the outside and creamy on the inside, these fries actually showcased the potato’s flavor without tasting excessively oily. Kudos, Alchemy!
Our polka-dot clad waitress seemed to have forgotten about our table at times, such as between recieving our menus and ordering or after checking out the monetary damage done on the bill (not bad at all, actually, with just less than $10 each). Wavering on the noticeable side of slow service, perhaps our server pays less attention to outside tables.
Though the menu only specifies 3 items as vegan, I’m eager to return to Alchemy to sample their sweet potato fries (hold the tarragon mayo), housemade tortilla chips with roasted sweet corn pico de gallo and grilled avocado, and another round of delectable Maize salad.
Want more on Alchemy Cafe? Check out my less extensive later adventure at this lovely eatery here.
Until next time, Ali.