Praise be, Madison finally has a vegetarian restaurant! Best of all, The Green Owl fits the bill as a go-to spot whenever you happen to be in town---it's casual, affordable and has a good-sized menu so you can try something new each time you stop by. About 80% of the menu is vegan and all vegan items are labeled. Green Owl also has rotating vegan dessert specials daily. If you're in Madison and you're vegan or vegetarian or just like good food, this place should be at the top of your list.
The space itself is lovely: bright; colorful; retro-mod with a bistro-bar ambience. The bar up front is a bit cramped and too close to the front door (a chilly spot in winter) but it'll be great in the summer. Green Owl has a good selection of unusual wines and beers.
I do wish that Green Owl was a bit more casual and offered original coffee & tea drinks, so that the space could double-up as a coffee shop as well. I think it would draw people in and (hopefully) steal away customers from less veg-friendly places in that area. It would also save me the hassle of driving a mile down the road to the Williamson Street Co-op to pick up a fresh chai for my frequent trips to/fro Minneapolis to/fro Chicago.
I first time I went I had a BBQ jackfruit sandwich with roasted potatoes ($8). The sandwich tasted good on a whole, but was not without flaws. For one thing, there wasn't enough jackfruit---it seemed like only a few small pieces. Secondly, I don't know if mixing coleslaw on the sandwich worked with the smoky-sweet flavor of the barbecue sauce. Lastly, the artisan bread was not toasted enough, and was too thick; I would have preferred a thinner, toasted whole wheat option. The roasted potatoes were a tasty side, though.
I also had a slice of coconut creme pie ($6) for dessert. This was spectacular. It was oh-so-subtly sweet, with wonderfully airy "creme" and nice crispy-crumbly notes from shaved coconut and a great crust.
The second time I went to Green Owl I had the "vegetarian Italian beef" (which is vegan; $9). This sandwich was excellent and tasted just like Italian beef sandwiches, though with seitan. The bread got nicely soggy and wet and brought back many memories. I think the seitan could have been marinated more in the sauce, but it was a great-tasting meal and much better than the BBQ jackfruit sandwich. I got it with a side of kale crisps, which were also awesome, and not usually seen on menus. The portion size could have been slightly larger given the price, but this was definitely a high-grade meal and well-executed.
For dessert I had a slice of New York cheesecake ($6) which came topped with strawberries, whipped cream, caramel drizzle, and one fresh mint leaf. This cheesecake was wonderful and one of the best I've ever had. It was rich, but not too sweet, and the interplay of the caramel, strawberries, mint and whipped cream was divine.
On my third visit, I had the vegan schnitzel ($13) which comes with either a soup or salad. The soup was an amazing winter vegetable medley that was quite spicy (probably too much so for most people, but just perfect for me). The schnitzel itself was also spectacular---I've never had real schnitzel, but this was a breaded, meaty marvel covered in a savory mushroom stroganoff-style sauce. I enjoyed the garlic green beans and roasted red potatoes that also came with the dish. For dessert I got a chocolate mousse tart ($6) which came with raspberry sauce and soy whipped cream; this was delicious and the chocolate had a slightly minty flavor. Green Owl consistently does excellent desserts.
For the fourth visit I had their crabby cakes sandwich ($9) which was tasty on fluffy white bread. It seemed a bit small for the price tag, but it was still good. On a whole, I would recommend the Italian beef or the schnitzel over anything else (I have yet to try their jambalaya, however). I also had a slice of key lime cheesecake ($6) which was good, and had a nicely browned/baked top layer, though it wasn't as good as the New York cheesecake I'd had a couple months back.
The service is always friendly and helpful. On at least two separate occasions my server also got me samples of the other available vegan dessert of the day, which was a great way to help me decide which dessert to choose.
Every town should have an all-purpose veg. spot like this one. I'm glad Green Owl is around, though I'm afraid it'll prevent me from ever trying other places in Madison!