Winter's Kryptonite

The Mermaid Cafe Brews Inner Warmth
By Rachel Werner

Nix winter chills at cozy brunch nook The Mermaid Café. The bright blue façade jumps out from the shortened jag of Winnebago Street on Madison’s East Side—and is a hint your mood will only improve by entering. Once inside, seductive wafts and glimpses of the pumpkin pepita muffins and warm Caribbean carrot soup make you salivate and your body begins to thaw.

The simultaneous desire to eat and unwind is no accident here. Every menu item of owner Lisa Jacobson’s limited offerings is conceptualized seasonally. “In deep winter, I let myself have fun,” she says. “The basic framework of a sandwich, soup or bowl may stay the same, but I switch up the ingredients to create a new spin on an old dish by adding Myer lemon zest to lemon pancakes and serving hearty stews like coconut curry lentil.”

After 10 years in business, Jacobson has had a steep learning curve in operating a miniature restaurant. “My original intention was to run a fair trade coffee shop. But within a few years, I realized I was more focused on what was happening on farms in Central America than in my own backyard,” she explains.

Her focus shifted and Jacobson began serving a small selection of farm-to-table dishes and baked goods, in addition to becoming a CSA pick-up site for local farm Driftless Organics.

Despite the café’s longevity, Jacobson says a good deal of trial and error still takes place. “I may be a great cook, but I am a proficient baker. Do know crowning successes such as my Pear Snacking Cake”— with a brown butter glaze—“are oft happy accidents of earlier disasters.”


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