Meatless Madison: French Green Toast at La Kitchenette
La Kitchenette offers many vegetarian dishes
While French food might not always be synonymous with vegetarian cuisine–think rich, beef-broth based French onion soup and the classic chicken stew coq au vin–at La Kitchenette, a French cafe on Williamson Street, owner Virginie Ok loves dreaming up inventive vegetarian dishes for her menu.
Ok was born and raised in Paris by her parents who moved to France from Cambodia. She worked as a project manager in the cosmetic industry in Paris before moving to Madison with her boyfriend in 2016 but says she always loved cooking.
“I always cooked with my mom and grandmother, and my aunt and uncle owned a bakery,” Ok says. “Asian families love big cooking gatherings but I didn’t know I would end up as a chef–I’ve never been to culinary school!”
When Ok moved to Madison she started thinking about opening her own restaurant but couldn’t find the right spot. After a visit to Chez Nanou–the former restaurant where La Kitchenette is now–Ok says she thought “this space would be perfect.” Also from France, owner Anne-Marie Rieunier, known as “Nanou” contacted Ok in June 2016 when she needed help in the kitchen. “Three weeks later she told me she wanted to sell it and I said ‘it’s perfect! I want it!,'” Ok says. “It was a dream come true because when I was working for her I was wishing maybe she would sell it but Nanou wanted to wait to find someone who was also French to keep the spirit of what she was doing.”
Ok reopened the restaurant as La Kitchenette in September 2016 and began serving her versions of classic French dishes including crepes, tartines and creme brûlee. Open for lunch and dinner, La Kitchenette also serves brunch on weekend mornings. A recent addition to the brunch menu–the Green French Toast–has become an instant hit.
Calling it a “green power” meal, Ok says the idea for the French toast came to her one morning when she was waking up. “It’s not a traditional French dish,” Ok says. “But at the time I was doing a lot of pancakes for myself with spinach and green onions. I did it once here as a veggie plate with lime butter but it was too complicated to do it to order–we have a very little kitchen–and it was taking too much time. One day I thought maybe I could transform it into a French toast, which is a lot easier to prepare.”
A savory dish made with Madison Sourdough Brioche, the Green French Toast is battered with spinach, green onions and spices, served on a bed of sauteed spinach and topped with chili lime mayonnaise, roasted pine nuts and an egg.
“I think for brunch it’s really important to have vegetarian dishes,” Ok says. “I was thinking ‘how can I keep it vegetarian and give it a lot of flavor?’ The spices, including cumin, and green onions add a lot. We add lime, too. It’s a great combination and perfect as it is.”
Ok says the toast is very popular with customers– “almost every table usually has at least one order of it on the table,” she says– and it’s also her favorite item on the brunch menu. “It transports you. Every time I cook it on Sunday at the end of the shift, I make one for myself.”
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