Vegan food and fun in Mad City

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 New York Bagels & Eats on Urbanspoon

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.

Himal Chuli on Urbanspoon

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!

14 thoughts on “Vegan food and fun in Mad City

  1. What a fun trip! I recently read about Vom Fass opening in Des Moines. It must be new here? I’ll have to check it out!

    • We had a great time! I’d never heard of Vom Fass before this trip, but I was delighted to learn that they have a Des Moines location. The next time I’m in town, we’ll have to visit it together. :)

  2. You made Madison look as great as it can be! I love Gotham Bagels too, and I love their commitment to making everyone feel like they have more than one choice. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • There’s so much more ahead too! Madison locals are lucky to live in a place with so many international food options, beautiful lakes and parks, and lots of live music. I saw that you attended the Fest as well. Too bad we didn’t run into each other!

  3. Whoa. Times have changed at Himal chuli. We always used to get tarkari and dal, or momocha. I should have mentioned that. Next time grab a felafel sandwich at Mediterranean Café — much cheaper. :) You’ll have to go back to Madison to refill the bottles, anyway!

    I’m glad you got to the Art Center, and hope you didn’t mind the glass steps! Some people have a hard time with that. Looks like you had a full day in my favorite city, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the trip. I really miss Madison.

    • We almost went to Mediterranean Cafe one night, but then opted for Laotian food instead. Next time!

      I didn’t mind the glass steps at all. Looking at them from underneath and behind was like taking in a piece of art on its own. I was taken with them, but I can see how they would be intimidating to some people.

      We definitely had some full days in the city! There was a lot to do and we wanted to make the most of it. I can see why you miss Madison, but luckily Seattle is one of the country’s best as well!

  4. I had no clue Madison was so veg-friendly! That exhibit sounds very intriguing. We’ll be driving to Pennsylvania soon–too bad Madison isn’t a little further north, otherwise I would love to stop in to see it on our way there. This past weekend at the farmers market we stopped in at a booth for a store called The Tasteful Olive–it’s the same concept as Vom Fass, minus the alcohol–and sampled entirely too many vinegars (and then we walked to the store, where we sampled even more). So much fun! I never thought I would enjoy sipping vinegar and oil, but they were outstanding, and the flavors so unique. Those oils are going to add so much depth to your dishes!

    • Madison is a lot like Kansas City in that it has a surprising amount of vegan options. Something about Madison that really impressed me is that restaurants and servers in general seemed to have an understanding of veganism. On lots of menus around town it was posted that items could be made vegan upon request. Plus, they have an embarrassment of riches in terms of international food, and as you know, that’s a huge boon where plant-based cuisine is concerned.

      Too bad that Madison won’t be an option on your upcoming road trip, but do hit it in the future if you get a chance! I’ll look forward to hearing what other finds you experience on your travels!

    • Yes, Vom Fass is like the adult version of free samples at a candy store. (Working at a candy store was actually my first job, and that was easily my favorite perk.) It would have been easy to go crazy with more, but somehow I limited myself to two bottles!

      It’s very cool that Madison is so vegan-friendly, especially for a town in the middle of “dairyland.”

  5. I had never heard the accolades about Madison, but now I can see why you were so taken with it! Looks like you had a lot of fun and some great food. I’m not much of a bagel person, but David’s bagel is making me crave one right now!

    Thanks for the head’s up on Vom Fass- it’s good to know that they have a southern California location I can hit up! Can’t wait to hear more about Mad City Vegan Fest!

    • There’s a similar oil and vinegar place in Old Town Pasadena that we used to visit on occasion. However, I liked Vom Fass more, because of the variety in their selections and that they have more than just vinegar and oil. Plus, the customer service was great and really encouraged sampling.

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