Another Birthday Dinner at the Mermaid Cafe

Yes, this review will join two others already posted on Farmers Market Vegan. Yes, I’ve dined at the Mermaid Cafe three times in the past two months. Yes, I harbor a small obsession for their artfully crafted, strictly seasonal fare influenced by Madison farmers. But no! I am not ashamed! On the contrary—I take great pride in holding the title of owner Lisa Jacobson’s “vegan mentor” and inspiring a regular vegan option on their constantly changing dinner menu.

Last Saturday, while taking a long stroll through the East Side, my best friend Maddie and I peeked into my favorite cafe in curiosity of their weekend lunch specials. Spotting me, Lisa beckoned us inside and enthusiastically informed me of the Mermaid’s fall dinner menu, launching that Tuesday. She also ensured a vegan option and hinted at the possibility of meatless meatballs. Luckily, Connor and I had planned to go out to dinner that Thursday in a late celebration of my birthday, so I excitedly gushed to Lisa that I would definitely see her later that week.

Believe me, I know I shirked my blogger responsibilities during my last dinner experience at the Mermaid Cafe when I failed to produce any food photos, so I hope to ameliorate my heinous crime with today’s post.

Lisa welcomed Connor and I after we had seated ourselves and relayed the bad news: their vegetarian meatballs weren’t vegan. Try as she might, her meatless-ball experimentations had failed without the addition of cheese and eggs to keep them from falling apart. I suggested the ever-popular vegan egg-replacer of flaxseed meal, which Lisa admitted she had wanted to try, but hadn’t had the time to play around with various vegan-friendly binding agents. Nonetheless, she assured me that her vegan meatball trials would rage on, but for tonight, she pointed me toward the new menu’s salad and Thursday’s pizza night special (hold the cheese, of course).

After Lisa bade us farewell and scurried off to the kitchen, our bubbly server jotted down the night’s menu in Sharpie onto our butcher paper “tablecloth,” to which Connor inquired “Do they require that all their waiters have gorgeous handwriting here?”

She even drew me a little birthday cake! How sweet.

To my sheer delight, the waitress brought a mini bucketful of farmers market popcorn drizzled in truffle oil for Connor and I to munch on while we awaited our meals. Whole-grain popcorn instead of white flour-laden bread? Why don’t all restaurants serve this underrated snack? I wholeheartedly approve.

Connor skipped out on a first course, instead responding with a thrilled “yes!” to the waitress’ offer of more popcorn and happily accepting the toasted baguette that came with my salad. Veganized to my liking, the hearty autumn salad featured slightly wilted spinach, peppery sauteed lion’s mane mushrooms, and tender shallots tossed in a warm sunflower oil dressing, all sprinkled with walnuts. An exciting textural contrast between the soft mushrooms, silky spinach, and crunchy walnuts, the salad helped prepare me for a transition into fall cuisine.

While I, unfortunately, couldn’t sample the vegetarian meatballs, Connor ordered the winning recipe from Lisa’s meatless-ball tests. They came served on a wooden plank, very lightly tossed in tomato sauce, accompanied by fresh lasagna sheets topped with basil pesto and pine nuts. A deconstructed play on the traditional Italian casserole, perhaps? Connor very much enjoyed his plate, easily admitting that the pesto far outshined his mother’s “wierd” version.

As for me, I followed Lisa’s directions and opted for a cheeseless version of the Thursday pizza special—sliced heirloom tomatoes, more lion’s mane mushrooms, and roasted red pepper sauce sprinkled with thyme. The tomatoes and sauce melded into a succulent mess of orangey-red, while the mushrooms offered a meaty texture and the fresh thyme lended a herby pop. However, the crust needed longer in the oven, as the edges didn’t have the satisfying crunch or slightly burnt flavor as good, thin-crust pizza should—an element the Mermaid chef perfected at my last dinner visit.

Meal Checklist: Protein–walnuts. Whole Grain–popcorn, but sadly overshadowed by the white pizza crust. Vegetables–lion’s mane mushrooms, tomatoes. Leafy Green–spinach.

As always, the Mermaid Cafe’s reliably tasty, local, and seasonal offerings failed to disappoint and provided a lovely (second) birthday dinner—complete with presents!

Underneath the impressive wrapping job (certainly not accomplished by Connor, pshaw): a hand-held beverage carbonator! Perhaps it may sound like a lame gift to you, but considering how much I adore carbonated water (especially while in Europe), this could prove a handy tool.

Until next time, Ali.

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