Leave it to Jennie Capellaro, owner of the Green Owl Cafe in Madison, to work her alchemy on kale, that tough-textured green. Her kales crisps are chopped leaves dusted with olive oil, seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, and then slowly baked in an oven until they reach a light, delicate crunch that melts in your mouth.
Capellaro’s kale transformation is amazing, no doubt contributing to the Green Owl Cafe being named Wisconsin’s best vegetarian/vegan restaurant in a recent issue of Food & Wine magazine. It’s an honor over which she still marvels.
“I didn’t ask a lot of questions about how they came to that decision, but we’re pleased and honored to have been chosen,” says Capellaro. “It’s exciting.”
Capellaro — who comes from a food-obsessed family in New Glarus — serves up an array of vegetarian and vegan dishes in her small storefront restaurant in Schenk’s Corners on Madison’s near east side. She opened the restaurant in 2009, while on hiatus from pursuing a law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I blame it on the misery of law school,” Capellaro says. “I dropped out, then started writing my business plan and searching for locations. The process took longer than expected, so I went back to school and finished my degree so my credits wouldn’t expire.”
Once she graduated, it was on to making her restaurant business plan a reality. “I have been a vegetarian for 20-plus years and wanted to open a place where I could go and eat,” she says. “We also have vegan selections, and the vegans who come in here are thrilled because they’ve found a place that gives them choices.”
The 50-seat restaurant’s menu features four salads, six appetizers, seven entrées and nine sandwiches. Soups and sides, including Capellaro’s kale crisps ($3.75), round out the selections.
“If we have a theme, it’s vegetarian comfort food,” Capellaro says. “A certain segment of this audience doesn’t like the idea of meat substitutes, but others really want a veggie loaf as opposed to a meatloaf. We also try to have vegetable-based dishes that don’t replicate meat at all.”
Menu favorites include the appetizer Crabby Cakes ($6.50), which consists of two tofu and mushroom patties baked to a golden brown and topped with vegan chipotle rémoulade.
The cakes reappear on the sandwich menu in the Crabby Cake po’ boy ($10), where they’re served on a toasted French roll with lettuce, tomato and chipotle rémoulade.
Groundnut Stew ($12.25) is one of the restaurant’s top-selling entrées. It’s a traditional African sweet-potato dish prepared with cabbage, ginger, peanuts and cilantro and served over brown rice with steamed kale.
The Jackfruit Quesadilla ($12.50) takes advantage of the blandness of the immature fruit, which has a texture that shreds like pulled pork and a character that picks up the seasonings in the dish. The quesadilla is served with cheddar cheese, rice and seasoned black beans and can be adapted to a vegan diet, Capellaro says.
The top sandwich is the TLT, a combination of smoked tempeh, avocado, tomato and lettuce that’s served on a Madison Sourdough roll with vegan aioli. The tempeh is produced by nearby Bandung Indonesian Restaurant.
The sandwich has a pleasant, slightly smoky flavor, with the tempeh and avocado adding textures and tastes to the dish. A side of the feather-light kale crisps rounded out a very satisfying lunch during a recent visit.
Craft beer and cocktails and a limited wine selection also are available with both lunch and dinner.
The cafe has its own in-house pastry chef. Cara Mosely started as waitress, bartender and all-purpose helper when the restaurant opened in 2009. But she soon started baking, Capellaro says.
“I didn’t know I needed a pastry chef until she convinced me that I did,” Capellaro says. “All the desserts are vegan, but you’d never know it because they all are delicious.”
Their work has established the Green Owl Cafe as Madison’s top vegetarian restaurant, despite the dichotomy between the establishment’s name and its intent.
“I like owls, but owls are carnivorous birds,” Capellaro says. “I like to think that my green owl is vegetarian and exists on a plant-based diet.”
For someone who can make even kale delightful, anything is possible.
The Green Owl Cafe, 1970 Atwood Ave., Madison
On the menu: Vegetarian and vegan “comfort food” that offers a broad selection of flavors and choices.
On the web: greenowlcafe.com
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Mondays.