Upon returning to my hometown of Madison, WI for a month-long winter break from my hectic life at Vassar College, I’ve engaged in a number of activities that have contributed to a true sense of homecoming. Even though I now happily consider the Vassar campus as my veritable stomping ground, Madison’s liberal, progressive, vibrant, eclectic, environmentally-minded community earns an eternal place in my heart, and during my extended visit back I’ve truly enjoyed partaking in the activities that, for me, define the Madisonian lifestyle. Those translate to frequently patronizing my two favorite heated yoga studios, Inner Fire Yoga and The Studio; shopping for high-quality, organic, and local produce as well as specialty health food items at the Willy Street Coop; supporting the Dane County Farmers Market every Saturday; whiling away the hours in my well-equipped kitchen; and sampling the generous amount of veg-friendly restaurant cuisine this fine city has to offer.
Concerning Madison’s restaurant scene, once again experiencing a certain special, monthly dining event excited me more than returning to any other eatery while back in my hometown: Raw Night at the Green Owl. I’ve returned to the Green Owl for their Raw Nights on six occasions now, determined to pay that sixth visit during my winter break after an excruciating four-month hiatus from the gourmet raw cuisine offered by Cara and Jennie. Last Thursday night, I, accompanied by two of my dear friends, satisfied this fierce determination at the Owl’s “Eastern European Winter Themed” Raw Night, which featured light, colorful, uncooked variations on the heavy traditional dishes of the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and the like.
Foreshadowing the party of pink and parade of pickles that would characterize our meal, a creamy apple slaw mixed with locally fermented red cabbage sauerkraut and garnished with chives began my long-awaited reunion with the Owl’s ever-improving raw fare. An intriguing meld of tart, tangy, sour, and sweet flavors united by a lovely undertone of caraway, the slaw served as a fresh opening to the five tantalizing courses to come.
Yet another brilliantly pink dish followed the slaw—a chilled borscht served with a dollop of cashew sour cream and topped with fresh dill and chive oil. I’ve long hesitated to sample borscht or to make it myself out of a fear that the soup will taste simply like, well, a pile of soggy shredded beets. Don’t get me wrong—I adore the earthy sweetness of beets, but always felt that an entire soup devoted to them would taste rather overpowering. Indeed, my skepticism proved accurate, as a beety boxer knocked out my tastebuds with the first spoonful of borscht, and I could only stomach another couple experimental tastes before handing off the cup to my dining companions (we opted to share two prix fixe menus between the three of us due to the generous portion sizes). However, I don’t want to blame the fabulous folks at the Owl for a less-than-appetizing soup, for I feel strongly that any rendition of borscht would inspire in me the very same negative reaction. Offering a redeeming quality to the second course, the creamy cashew sour cream inspired me to save it from drowning in its beety ocean as I stole the dollop from both bowls of soup.
The final small plate of the meal included crisp endive leaves filled with a savory pumpkin seed pate and accompanied by cumin-spiced pickled turnips. Though the pate tasted like just about every other nut pate I’ve sampled in the past (not bad, just nothing special), I positively fawned over the brightly hued, impeccably tangy, surprisingly spiced pickled turnips. Blame my powerful adoration of all things pickled, but I would call these pickled turnips a work of culinary art, especially due to their employment of cumin—a spice I never would have considered adding to pickles. Green Owl: I’d like a barrel of the pickled turnips, okay? Thanks.
Temporarily straying from our dinner’s otherwise pink theme, our main plate of Kofta Biryani drove our party of three into a symphony of “Mmm’s” and “Oh my god’s” with its quartet of dazzling components. Crusty on the outside with a delicately textured center, three deeply flavored walnut balls bathed in a creamy gravy boasting an undertone of cinnamon. Beside the walnut balls glowed a sunnily hued saffron-cauliflower “rice” pilaf studded with dates, bell peppers, and coconut flakes. Providing a refreshing flavor contrast to the three other unctuous aspects of the dish, a side of crunchy house-fermented brussels sprouts rounded out our main course.
As per usual, dessert proved the most decadent, astounding, and utterly mind-blowing course of the entire meal…or of all of the meals I’ve eaten over the past couple of months. This cardamom-poppy seed cheesecake with orange blossom-blood orange glaze and citrus-apricot sauce left all three of us literally speechless, as we devoured both slices in complete silence, communicating with each other only with strained expressions of, “I finally understand what it truly means to experience a food orgasm.” And now I cannot force myself to think about anything else other than this cheesecake…so thank you, Green Owl, for ruining all my intellectual hopes and dreams. I’m okay with that, though, as long as I can curl up with a slice of your cheesecake every night.
Needless to say, my “welcome back” Raw Night dinner fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations, and I’m currently attempting not to allow my absence from Madison, and thus from the Green Owl, during my spring semester of freshman year to cause me too much gastronomic suffering. Sigh. If any of you, dear readers, experience the pleasure of dining at the Green Owl for their Raw Nights, please let me know so my palate can live vicariously through yours.
Until next time, Ali.