If you’ve glanced at my Mermaid Cafe review and my sycophantic Twitter feed, you probably suspect my unconditional, undying, and unbelievable adoration of Madison’s finest casual farm-to-table eatery (I say casual because hey, who can compete with L’Etoile?). Thus, imagine my fit of pure glee when Mermaid announced that on September 1st, they would launch a dinner menu to accompany their top-notch lunches. After bonking my head on the ceiling from bouncing out of my chair in excitement, I frantically telephoned Connor and informed him of his entouraging role in accompanying me to the cafe-turned-restaurant for a late summer feast. (Not a question. An order.)
I harbored a pinch of meal anxiety, however, for Mermaid had not posted their new menu online yet—a potentially fatal dining faux-pas for any vegan. However, judging from their lunchtime vegan friendliness, their East Side location, and my relationship with owner Lisa Jacobsen thanks to REAP Farm-to-School volunteering, I somewhat safely concluded that the skilled Mermaid chefs could omit a few dairy products to accomodate their most avid vegan customer.
Entering the newly renovated cafe introduced a slightly more upscale atmosphere than their previously quaint space—no window displaying “Mermaid Cafe” in goldenrod-yellow cursive, no wall-spanning chalkboard, no array of fliers advertising hippie events posted in the doorway. With the adoption of a sophisticated, seasonally rotating dinner menu came a grown-up version of the Mermaid, complete with sleek black tabletops lit dimly by white votives.
A unique and intimate feature of the new Mermaid lies in their waitstaff: instead of administering menus, our sweet and knowledgeable waitress quickly penned the nightly offerings on our butcher paper table runner in black Sharpie, briefly describing each dish’s tantalizing components. As with most small-menued restaurants, the Mermaid did not feature any readily vegan items which inspired my anticipated inquiry of possibly adaptable dishes. Generously obliging and most likely following Lisa’s instructions to “treat these two well—this woman’s vegetable-chopping skills are near and dear to my heart,” the chef suggested the heirloom tomato salad and their daily special mini pizza, both with the omission of cheese.
At this point, I beg of your forgiveness, for the faint lighting did not serve food photography well. I’ll try my best to describe our dishes in excruciating detail to evoke an accurate mental picture.
Served on a canoe-like shallow wooden tray, vibrantly yellow and red heirloom tomatoes (courtesy of Snug Haven) came thinly sliced and drizzled in local sunflower oil (I assume from Cherokee Bison Farms, perhaps from Driftless) with a sprinkle of basil and a dash of sea salt. Even with my sodium paranoia, I credit the light dusting of salt with illuminating the already stunning flavor of a perfectly ripe tomato. Masterfully prepared. As the Italians would say: “The only thing you have to do to good produce is not screw it up!”
Connor’s plate of braised chicken from Jordandal Farms came falling-off-the-bone tender atop a roasted red pepper sauce, surrounded by a variety of Spanish olives and silky fingerling potatoes. After sneaking a non-chicken-contaminated tater, I realized my fantasy of drowning, submerged under a mountain of skin-on roasted potatoes from the genius Mermaid chefs (prepared with or without homicidal intentions).
And oh, the pizza. OOHHH, this pizza. Pizza of this caliber may not even exist in Naples, the Neopolitan pizza capitol of the world. I erased all malicious thoughts of white flour for the night to fully surrender my dinner enjoyment to this 8-inch circle of wonder. The Crust: perhaps chewier and a tad thicker than a traditional Neopolitan, but frankly, I like ’em that way. Pleasingly crunchy and toothsome around the edges, the crust offered a mild flavor of unplaceable ingredient origin to transfrom the dough into a star of the dish, not simply an awkward extra milling in the background. The Sauce: summoning the deep, smoky flavors of muhummara (a Middle Eastern roasted red pepper-walnut spread), a smooth and slightly sweet layer of plate-licking yumminess. The Topping: can you say more heirloom tomatoes? AND fresh zucchini blossoms? A self-explanatory apex of summer’s most coveted produce.
As if I couldn’t have happily ceded my life to the culinary gods after this meal, our gondolier on this boat ride of delectables (Read: the chef) personally bore a gift of vegan dark chocolate mini cupcakes that I added to the potato pile in my death-by-deliciousness fantasy.
Perhaps I may sound a bit fawning, a bit fanatical, a bit completely enamored, but I lack a single disappointing or negative comment to relay about this meal. Thanks to their fierce devotion to sourcing local, seasonal ingredients from passionate farmers, the Mermaid Cafe features well-crafted dishes based around organic produce, humanely raised meats (though, can we ever consider killing an animal truly humane? I much prefer the use of these more ethically treated animals over the hormone-pumped cattle of conventional farms.), and artisan cheeses. While chatting with Lisa Jacobsen, she expressed her disbelief that nothing on that night’s menu originated as a vegan dish and assured me that in the future, she would give more thought to we non-dairy, non-meat eaters of Madison. I gushed that I didn’t mind my tweaked dishes in the least, thanked her copiously for the spectacular meal, and promised to return at least once every season to sample the Mermaid’s ever-changing bounty of farmers market goodies.
So yeah, I guess the Mermaid Cafe is okay. If by “okay” you mean bound to explode onto the list of Madison’s best restaurants alongside L’Etoile, Harvest, and Nostrano. I’m eager to see what the future holds for the Mermaid Cafe.
Until next time, Ali.