In a truly Italian family, life revolves around good food. My mother and father don’t stray from this verifiable stereotype: I share the kitchen with my mother while we saute, roast, grill, and chop up a home-cooked dinner every night; the three of us sit down to share a relaxing, lengthy supper as daily as possible; my mother and I connect with our food and the wonderful characters that grow it every Saturday at our farmers market; and the only television our family watches (besides my father’s Arkansas Razorbacks and mother’s Packers football games, yawn) consists of Food Network, Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Anthony Bourdain.
In keeping with our Italian appreciation of food, culinary mastery also weasles its way into birthdays. The night of the particular birthday, the lucky year-older family member holds the high honor of deciding the dinner menu. In my pre-vegan days, I opted for farfalle pasta in a smoked salmon cream sauce topped with caviar…clearly, I’ve strayed from that particular celebratory meal in recent years, choosing instead the family crowd-pleaser of gazpacho and grilled corn. But wait! You didn’t possibly assume that the birthday eating extravaganza ended there, did you? No, no, silly goose. After our special homemade dinner, we must patronize an eating establishment of higher esteem (and price tag), to complete the birthday meal bi-fecta.
This year, I awarded my birthday eatery of choice to Harvest, a Madison restaurant recently named one of Gourmet Magazine’s top farm-to-table restaurants in America that focuses their menu around local, seasonal products while working closely with the farmers. Tami Lax, the owner, founded the Madison chapter of Slow Food and served as the co-chair of the U.S. Slow Food APC Committee. Local, seasonal products? Slow Food connections? Delicious food? Harvest gets an A+ in Ali’s book.
On the Friday after my September 14th birthday, my mother, father, and I entered the classy, white-tableclothed yet unpretentious Harvest dining room anticipating a spectacular tribute to early fall crops from the farmers market. The maitre d’ slipped off our jackets to hang up (fancy diners can’t possibly be bothered with obtrusive outerwear on their chair backs during meals), and led us to a table close to the bar, though still well-lit from the ceiling-to-floor window overlooking Capitol Square.
Perusing the menu inspired near salivation, though realization of their probable un-veganness forced dejected sighs, especially when the tantalizing description came from the accompaniments to meat-centered dishes: smoked eggplant puree and lemon dust (?!?) disappointingly nestled beneath seared sea scallops, heirloom tomato curry tainted by salmon, more heirloom tomatoes in panzanella form un-veganly accompanying a roasted chicken breast, and basil-sweet corn broth as a bathtub for cornmeal-crusted cod. Gosh diddly darn it! While conversing with the maitre d’ a few weeks ago to make dinner reservations, she insured that they offered vegan-friendly options on the menu. Well…where were they?
A necessary request at most higher-end restaurants, I politely inquired as to which menu items the chef could alter into vegan-friendliness. As usual, the waitress whisked away to consult the chef while I anxiously crossed my fingers in the hopes that they would offer to compose a special vegan plate for me. The Harvest verdict: “The chef has offered to create a seasonal vegan dinner for you.” Birthday dreams accomplished.
The preliminary amuse bouche course often slips my mind, as most casual restaurants don’t offer a complimentary first bite. Thus, my eyes lit up and I let out a quite audible gasp when the waitress presented a miniature urn of roasted sweet corn soup with black truffle puree before me. My parents recieved a chilled leek soup of sorts, inspiring jealous comments from my mother that she craved a hot soup to warm her from the blustery September day. Another point for veganism! The fresh, creamy sweetness of the corn married with the earthy black truffle in a flavor combination that I had never contemplated before.
For our first courses, my mother ordered the steamed mussels and clams in broth with fermented black beans and Thai basil while my father zeroed in on the grilled octopus salad with fingerling potato chips and orange-jalapeno vinaigrette. I waited eagerly for my second meal surprise and happily accepted a salad of beautiful mixed greens tossed in a classic balsamic vinaigrette topped with thinly sliced radishes and beets. I warned my mother against the black beans, for I know all too well her distate toward fermented foods (I’ve attempted many a time in vain to warm her up to Kombucha!). Indeed, while she pried the mussel meat from their shells, she remarked that the black beans added an unnecessary sour taste to an otherwise incredibly well-crafted dish. My father, after living in Japan for a year, adores octopus in any form and verily enjoyed his smoky, citrusy tentacle salad. While my mixed greens married wonderfully with the tangy balsamic dressing and the beets offered a slightly sweet, crunchy component, I reverted back to my radish-hating ways and could truly appreciate only the bites of salad not infiltrated by the yucky, bitter root veggies.
Our delicious first plates left us earnestly awaiting the seconds. With her love of panzanella, my mother anticipated her roasted chicken breast over an heirloom tomato panzanella (a classic Tuscan bread salad), while my father expected a grilled hanger steak (Wisconsin grass-fed and co-op raised, so I approved exponentially more than a factory-farmed hunk of hormone-full beef) with warm potato salad, mint chimichurri, and shisito pepper. I practically bounced in my seat in excitement over my final surprise of the night, which the chef graciously produced completely impromptu. A ragout of sorts, my vegan plate consisted of house-made cavatelli pasta (no eggs!), sweet corn, cherry tomatoes, finely diced red bell peppers, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and KALE!!!!! in a light broth from the veggies’ natural juices. Oh my goodness. Every ingredient balanced each other: the perfect al dente bit of the cavatelli, the fresh sweet note from the corn, the acidic tang from the cherry tomatoes, the succulent hint of red bell pepper, the meaty umami of the mushrooms, and the deep unctuous flavor of the kale. A gorgeous medley of late summer produce.
But of course, when a restaurant features sauteed kale on their side dish menu, how can I resist? I ordered my own plate after spying the tantalizing pile of tender greens topped with crispy garlic that my father had already recieved with his beef.
Meal Checklist: While a touch of white flour from the pasta weasled its way into my belly and the meal lacked a protein, I consider my fancy birthday dinner a vast success thanks to the copious amount of greens. (Mixed in the salad and two servings of kale!)
When it comes to farm-fresh, local cusine, Harvest has established itself as one of the top restaurants in the city, right next to Tory Miller’s L’Etoile. I have tremendous appreciation for their ability to produce vegan-friendly dishes on the fly—and flavor them to taste like well-contemplated, thoughtfully crafted dishes. My gratitude extends to the Harvest staff for creating a very memorable 17th birthday dinner.
Until next time, Ali.