Madison, Wisconsin is one of those cities about which I’ve only heard rave reviews. Like Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado, it seems that whenever Madison pops into conversation, it’s always followed up with gushing accolades. Being a progressive college town, it falls into the category of cities that are on the smaller side but with the kind of amenities one expects in a major metropolis. There are museums, parks, restaurants aplenty, and eclectic shopping. When I learned that my friend, Colleen, would be speaking at this year’s Mad City Vegan Fest, it seemed the perfect excuse to spend some much needed quality time with her and also check out this forward thinking city to the north.
Before packing my bags and stocking up on snacks for the trip, I contacted Andrea over at Andrea’s Easy Vegan Cooking to see what sites should not be missed. Andrea now resides in Seattle, but she lived in Madison for many years, and so I knew she’d have the inside scoop on the best places to visit. Andrea emailed me the most amazing letters detailing the best things to see and do, and she did not disappoint. She acted as our virtual tour guide as we hit up many of her suggestions.
First on the list, Vom Fass. Vom Fass is a small specialty store that offers fruit vinegars, a variety of flavored oils, wine, liqueurs, and spirits. Everything is sold from the cask. (That’s what Vom Fass means in German – “from the cask.”) Customers are encouraged to sample any of the products they sell, using a little sample-sized spoon. The salesperson who was helping us was extremely knowledgeable about their products, and he had lots of ideas about ways to use them in cooking. It was early in the morning when we went, and so we didn’t sample any of their alcoholic items, but we did try several of their oils and vinegars.
I landed on a rosemary extra virgin olive oil and a wonderfully musky Porcini extra virgin olive oil. I’m looking forward to using them as a finish on soups, to sauté with mushrooms for extra boldness of flavor, in dressings and sauces, and of course, for dipping with a crusty baguette. After a person picks whatever product she or he would like, then it’s time to buy a bottle that can be used later for refilling on subsequent visits. While I was there, I found out that they have a few other locations in the United States: Des Moines, Iowa, Jackson, Wyoming, New Orleans, Louisiana, St. Louis, Missouri, and Westlake Village, California. They also have stores in Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Latvia, and Hungary.
After that it was time to grab some breakfast at Gotham New York Bagels. Andrea sang high praises about them saying, “the bagels there are the real deal. The owner is the ex-New Yorker nephew of a friend of mine, and I understand he made every effort possible – including comparing NYC and Mad City water to reproduce an authentic New York Bagel.”
I ordered the “V” on an onion bagel. (My husband’s sesame seed bagel is pictured here, though.) It was topped with scallion tofu cream cheese, roasted poblano peppers, tomato, arugula and avocado. The bagel was very filling and had that chewy pull to it that is ideal. We ate outside in the sun at their outdoor seating area. When we were leaving, I overheard a man speaking in a thick East Coast accent, raving to his wife that they have to come back again and bring one of their New Yorker friends. This place must be legit!
Gotham is located in the bustling downtown area, and so we walked around, checking out the exterior of the beautiful capitol, walking along the lake, and visiting the shops. While downtown, we noticed that the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art was featuring an exhibit on humans’ relationship with animals called One Must Know the Animals. The name comes from a novel by Rainer Maria Rilke called The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
“For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming…”
The overall theme of the exhibit was the way that animals inform our own ideas about personal and social values, life and death. It was an appropriate and serendipitous find for three animal lovers. In addition to admiring the artwork, the building itself has captivating architecture. The exhibit will continue until August 19, 2012.
While Madison surprisingly only has one vegetarian restaurant (more on that later), they have no end of vegan-friendly options. We landed on a Nepali restaurant called Himal Chuli for lunch, which is located on State Street. Never one to turn down jackfruit when it’s an option, I had a salad and roti with the Katahar Kabob. In it jackfruit is marinated with a blend of spices and sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. The dish had wonderfully fragrant and complex spices. It tasted delicious; although, it was on the oily side.
My husband had a salad and rice with the seitan buff, which included big chunks of seitan stir-fried with onions, garlic, mushrooms, broccoli, and green peppers in Mediterranean spices. The dish was savory, rich, and very filling. While I thought the lunch was very tasty, my main complaint would be the price. At around $16/per plate, I thought it was unusually expensive for what it was.
Andrea had mentioned in one of her emails to pick up a copy of the local weekly paper called Isthmus to see what local events were happening. As luck would have it, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical tribute was occurring that evening at Club Inferno. Several bands were playing the songs from Once More With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy. Many of my husband and my earliest dates were spent watching through season after season of Buffy, and we even had one of the songs from the show sung at our wedding by a close friend and fabulous singer. It was such a coup that it happened to be going on that night! The bar was filled with an eclectic mix of people, including some in costumes, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits belting out tunes from the beloved cult hit.
Well, that’s the end of day one! Read here for highlights from the Mad City Vegan Fest itself!