The Food of Legends

The Food of Legends

When Lisa Jacobson interviews prospective cooks and baristas for Mermaid Café, her popular east side restaurant, there’s one question she always asks: “What do you eat, and why do you eat it?”

“That stumps a lot of people,” she says. “I should probably warn them first.”

Jacobson’s own food philosophy, which centers around an omnivorous appreciation for fresh, local ingredients, dates to her childhood in Sun Prairie, where she plucked asparagus from ditches, watercress from streams and chokecherries from neighboring farms. Recognizing where food comes from is a sensibility she cultivates in her employees.

“We know the people who make our cheese and raise our meat,” says Jacobson, who opened Mermaid in 2005. “I want staff to feel proud of where our products come from.”

The café was originally a tiny coffee shop—four stools, one counter—that sold sandwiches to go. Early success led Jacobson to take over an adjacent storefront, build cozy booths and add sidewalk seating. She credits Bekk Luce, a former L’Etoile cook, with helping retool the breakfast and lunch menus, which now feature homemade pastries, granola, sandwiches, soups and quiche. Dinner will be back this fall; expect such homey dishes as slow-cooked chicken, steak au poivre and desserts like apricot fool and plum-cardamom galettes, made by Katie Montgomery, Jacobson’s mother.

But sandwiches remain the star here, and two in particular are worth frequent visits—the Oh Mighty Isis, grilled focaccia smeared with coconut-curry aioli and topped with scrambled eggs, avocado, cheddar and tomato, and the Banh Meatless, a vegetarian spin on the French-Vietnamese banh mi, a toasted baguette stuffed with slabs of lemongrass-marinated tofu, daikon-carrot slaw and cilantro. The latter easily ranks among the best sandwiches in Madison, and is available all hours of the day.

Mermaid Café
1929 Winnebago St.