Spectacular contentment revisited

A couple of months ago, I meant to tell you about cucumbers. I had a simple recipe, a photo, a title.

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I wanted to tell you about the day in July when I made these cucumbers while visiting our friends in Cheyenne, the last stop on a western road trip that started at a campsite in Wall, South Dakota and took us to the sea and back.

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Lingering over familiar coffee mugs, not your mug, but one you know well enough to anticipate the exact weight of it in your hand, we discussed that evening’s dinner menu. With that settled, we jotted lists and designated trips to the store. Free of shopping duties, Meagan and I decided to take a walk to the park with her daughter. We strolled through an area known as the peace garden, a place where quotes are etched into flat stones. One of these quotes caught my eye and I read to myself again and again, memorizing it and trying it out. “The world is full of people looking for spectacular happiness while they snub contentment” this stone told me a man named Doug Larson said.* And never was a stone more adept at reading someone’s mind. We made our way to the herb garden where I picked dill for the cucumbers and Meagan and I talked about our lives. Choices are made about where to live and jobs to have, but there is a nagging voice always questioning. Is this the right thing? Would I be happier if…?

Skies threatening, we walked back home and fixed lunch, opening a cheap bottle of rose wine to mix with fizzy water.

I meant to tell you all of this a couple of months ago and then… And then my job started back up. The one where I get to write poems with nine-year-olds and read books by E.B. White. The one where I have to test the nine-year-olds more than anyone should be tested and feel the weight of the world to get these kids “where they are supposed to be” according to someone else’s standards. Enter the voice… Is this the right thing? Would I be happier if? What if I lived in the mountains? On a farm? What if I wrote for a living? Or worked the land, a speckled cow dog by my side?

To paraphrase Lloyd Dobler, all I know is that I don’t know. But here is what I think: By all means, have dreams, go to lengths for spectacular happiness, don’t fight against yourself and what you know is right, but allow yourself those moments of contentment while you try to figure it all out. Familiar coffee mugs. Cheap wine. Marinated cucumbers. Old friends. As my dad always says, it will all come out in the wash.

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Marinated Cucumbers

To make marinated cucumbers, combine equal parts water, sugar and apple cider vinegar to cover thinly sliced cucumbers and onions. You can also add dill, if you like. Let sit at least a few hours before serving. These will keep in the fridge for a few days.

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*When I looked him up, I learned that Doug Larson was a newspaper man from Door County, Wisconsin.

Fun with Pets : Dixieland Jubilee edition

(Guest post by Dan Walkner)

Ah, pets.  Are they truly everywhere? What about the southern United States? Are Southern pets as cute as, say, pets of the Northwest or Midwest? I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and walking shoes and walked to our rented car and drove down south to answer these ever pertinent and burning queries.  Join the Jubilee!

Our journey took us to Asheville, NC.  While there, we were looking for the art district that we would ultimately find a week later, which upon finding the brewery that we HAD TO GO TO OMG, IT’S SOOOOO AWESOME wouldn’t serve me, we got lost(ish). As we puzzledly scratched our respective noodles and gazed about, I saw a poodle holding a cat as though it were a baby doll.  For real.  Erica slammed on the brakes and reversed the half block to the scene of the whatever-the-opposite-of-crime-is place, and we got out and captured some of the magic.  Dig:

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That’s love.  These pets show what teamwork is all about.  What sport you ask? Hmm, I’ll have to think about that.  While I do, here’s another gem of these pet diversity acceptors:

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Yeah it’s a little fuzzy, but maybe, just maybe, tears of joys fell on the camera-look-at-stuff-glass-part-thingy of the camera.  Sorry for the science jargon.  Moving on.

We arrived at our cabin and immediately found a crafty sasquatch in the hot tub! Scary, right?!?

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He quickly calmed our nerves by creating a mini snowman mascot for us. Crisis averted.

Our cabin was on a darling little farm.  There seemed to be a lot of dogs around.  How did I know you ask? Well, barking was happening a lot.  We decided to investigate further. Here are the findings:

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AHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!! Intruder alert! Oh wait, it’s just a little yellow dog who ran up the hill, took a leak on a snowy shrub, licked my face, accepted some scratches, and ran away. Ok, back to the pet search:

You know what? All this pet stuff made me want to go get some vintage western wear. (This is a common symptom of pet searching, or, well, me leaving the house.)  Tum-te-tum, Dum-de-dum…

BOOSH! This just happened:

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I forget this little cuteness nuke’s name, but he tricked me into buying a $30 shirt.

Then he wanted to do a Sam Kinison impression, so I figured what the hay?  Let her rip, buddy:

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Impressive.

Farms need pets, too.  Some to work, some for morale building, and some for both. Our tour of the farm led to all of the above of these aforementioned and viable pet vocations.

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What dear reader? Those are only stupid sheep a.k.a. non-pets? Look again my skeptical friend. Eureka! You see it now? The white wookie-esque friend?  That is one hard-charging pooch!  Sleeps outside for the love of her sheep homies. Dedication makes a farm go.

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You’re probably wondering if that dog has a sibling that also has a best cat friend that hangs around, aren’t you? You were? I know. Yup, it’s kind of a gift I have. As promised:

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I know, I’m way ahead of you. How much does the cat weigh? This many:

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See Big Whitey’s paw? Yeah, the one that trudges around in, well, grody farm dirt all day? He played a little joke on me right after this photo and stuck his paw in my mouth! Heyyyy! Here’s a shot of me not barfing but spitting a lot as he retracts his soil smasher:

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Silly new friend, oh how could I stay mad at you? Answer? Can’t!

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Donkey!

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All this pet stuff made me thirsty and wondery. I put on my Minocqua, WI thinking cloak and got some delicious beers at Wicked Weed Brewing.Image

Then I started thinking about my own pets. They can be weird at times. Are other people’s cats as weird as mine? Do they eat tape, too? Lick the sides of LP records? Get their head’s stuck in kitchen chairs? Climb cacti? Then P. McMahon’s time machine from 1997 pulled up.

ImageAh.  Thanks, P.

What a whirlwind tour of a single southern city that I’ll be basing all of my fact-finding on! What did we learn? Lots, duh! First, southern pets may bark a little slower and more confusedly, but they still get their point across. Don’t forget to look closely: southern pets are masters of disguise! Keep your mouth closed when tormenting an enormous dog’s best feline friend or be prepared to test the pH of the farmstead soil. Of course, when thrift shopping, fall for the canine wiles and just buy the damn shirt! It’s green and it’s awesome. Finally, no matter what color a pet is, or what part of the world it comes from, he, she, or neuter just wants to spread the love and maybe get a little scratch on the ol’ pet tums. These are jubilous pet times we live in: embrace them or eat dirt.

The good land

In September on a gorgeous late summer weekend, Dan and I went down the road to visit our friends, Nora and Nate, in Milwaukee. As a kid growing up in Madison, trips to Milwaukee meant one of two things: a ballgame at decrepit- but lovable- County Stadium to watch Rob Deer, Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper lope around in baby-blue uniforms or a “we’re tired of winter and need to get out of the house and feel humid air” trip to the domes. This time around, upon arriving at Nora and Nate’s attractive and sunny hard-wood floored apartment across from the river, we abandoned our car for bicycles and pedaled unchartered (by us) Mill-e-wah-que territory. I believe I said aloud more than once: “I never knew Milwaukee had this many trees!”

Our first trip on the wooded bike path took us to Lakefront Brewery, home of one of my all-time favorite beers, Fixed Gear Red Ale. Our tour guide was an interesting combination of angry and cheesy, yelling at participants for talking but also leading us in a somewhat-inspired rendition of the theme song from ‘Laverne and Shirley.’ But, as all good brewery tour guides do, he kept us in the beer throughout the proceedings.

After the tour we traded our tokens for various samples of Lakefront’s offerings and sat next to the river until they kicked us out for a wedding.

Giggling as we were ushered away from the brewery, we hopped our bikes for the beach, weaving through the neighborhood where our cat, Danger Boy, was found mewing under a porch as a kitten. We made our way to Bradford Beach where our friend, Craig, was singing on a stage set up on the sand a hundred feet from Lake Michigan.

I reveled in the feeling of being on a surprise get-away as we cruised away from the beach past parks, old pavilions and people out enjoying the air. Dinner came next. Nora and Nate wanted to take us to their favorite restaurant, Roots. I traded shorts for bell-bottomed jeans, french-rolled my pant leg, threw our headlamps in my purse and we were off- another trip down the bike path took us to the restaurant on the hill, overlooking downtown. I believe I said aloud more than once: “I never knew Milwaukee had this many hills!”

Upon arriving at Roots, we noticed a nervous energy filled the air. Soon the news floated down to us- this was the last night this extremely popular farm-to-table restaurant would be serving dinner. Nora and Nate were crushed with the news, but we decided to live it up. We sat outside and were lucky to have their favorite waiter, a charming man with an even more charming South African accent. He and I must have thanked each other a thousand times over the course of the evening. We sipped on red ales and started with mussels nestled in a tomato broth that I sipped as a soup long after we divvied up the meaty mollusks. Next came the main course- Nora, Nate and Dan all opted for the grass-fed steak as I decided on the vegetarian succotash. I almost didn’t order this dish as the word ‘succotash’ for me conjures up images of a bad summer camp meal full of frozen corn and mushy lima beans, but in the end, I went for it, mainly on the recommendation of our waiter, who at this point in the meal I felt ready to trust with my life. The succotash was, in a word, heavenly. I can’t really describe it much more, except to confide in you that, in the middle of this fine-dining restaurant, I looked around to see if anyone was paying any attention before I picked up my plate and licked it clean.

I have only done that (in public) once before and it was the plate of the chocolate bread pudding at the Rendezvous Bistro in Jackson, Wyoming. If you’ve had it, you understand. (Additionally, that night our waiter in Wyoming informed us we were in the plate-licking section so it was okay.)

After the succotash we ordered dessert, but I honestly don’t remember what it was. I do remember, however, that Nora ordered tea, knocking the socks off our waiter when she asked for rooibos tea, apparently a favorite in his native South Africa. Delighted, he brought us a full tea service, complete with tiny pitchers of milk and honey. It was the perfect end to a beautiful dinner- sipping hot tea as the evening air grew chillier. We bid Roots goodbye and put on our headlamps, biking home through the quiet dark in the middle of the city.

The next morning Nate made us a delicious meal of eggs and bunsen burner coffee. We lazed around before deciding on one more adventure before Dan and I had to make our home. We were off to the biergarten. We headed the opposite direction on our bicycles two miles and landed in this magical place next to the river where I could spend every Sunday afternoon from here to eternity.

There were steins of beers, pretzals with mustard, good friends, corgis and a two-piece band featuring an accordian player from Slovenia. Alice Cooper was right. Milwaukee is the good land and I can’t wait to go back.

Cucumber luge

I am going to cut to the chase: This post is hopelessly passé. I planned it for the end of March, when the bone luge (drinking sherry out of a bone) was all the rage. I’m sure no one hip has thought about a bone luge since the time it still rained in Wisconsin. But I mentioned it here, and I intend to follow through. Here was my issue: Vegetarians want to drink booze out of random vessels, too.  This must have really been nagging at me back in March because I woke up at 6 a.m. the first morning of my vacation in Boulder pondering it. Aha! I would create the first vegetarian bone luge.

Dan and I mapped it out over lunch at Pizzeria Locale. We had to replace the bone with something unoffensive to non-meat eaters. Our first thought was celery, but then we moved on to cucumbers. A plan was in place. We recruited our hosts, Mary and Jeffrey, who were mildly intrigued by our probably misdirected passion for this project. We bought the necessary supplies and embarked on our adventure. The first step was hollowing out the cucumbers in order to create a proper runway.

Step two involved coming up with the proper technique for pouring a shot of vodka down the cuke slides into our mouths (this was spring break 2012 after all). Dan took the lead on this one, working out the perfect angle. Needless to say, chaos- and a bit of a mess- ensued. But so did a delicious dinner of cucumber and pineapple salad, salmon (so I’m really a pescatarian at times, but I still don’t want to drink out of a bone) and grilled kale. It was a heck of an evening. And while that fleeting trend may be long gone, don’t be afraid to hollow out a cucumber this evening, pour a shot of your favorite liquor, and toast to the rain.

36 Hours in Bayfield

Nestled along the shoreline of Lake Superior, gazing out sleepily at the Apostle Islands, lies the dormant town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Come summertime this place will be hopping with kayakers, campers, concert-goers, seasonal workers and black bears. In the winter, it’s tough to find a place that is a) open and b) serves beer. But dig deep, and you will be rewarded. While Bayfield may be resting up for summer, there is plenty of food, drinks and fun to be found. You just have to be resourceful, which is what it’s all about in Wisconsin in the wintertime. Plan a trip to Bayfield in March for the Winter Festival and prepare to schmooze with the locals. Here’s what you need to know, if you go.*

 Friday

1:30 p.m. 1) SOMEBODY BUY THIS KID A SODA POP (OR A CHAI TEA)

Along Highway 63 on the way to Bayfield, you will find the town of Hayward, infamous for  a giant fish. 

While in Hayward, make sure to stop at Backroads Coffee & Tea (10526 Dakota Avenue, Hayward) for an afternoon cup, recommended by this brave young man who spends his lunch hours helping to keep the dream alive.

 3:30 p.m. 2) WELCOME TO THE PINEHURST INN

The Pinehurst Inn (83645 State Hwy 13, Bayfield), offering eco-friendly lodging with views of Lake Superior, is the place to stay. The rooms are cozy, the complimentary breakfasts are organic and delicious (ours included yogurt with granola and blueberries, egg and mushroom quiche with whole wheat crust, and tart apple cider), and the vintage bathtubs have claws. The owners of the inn, Steve and Nancy, are friendly and knowledgeable- they love the area and have lots of recommendations about where to go and what to do.

4:30 p.m. 3) DOES ANYONE KNOW WHERE WE COULD FIND A BEER?

After a brief stroll around downtown Bayfield, it’s time for happy hour.

Which may end up being more difficult than you would think in Wisconsin. On a Friday. At 4:45 p.m. But luckily there is the Pickled Herring Club at Pier Plaza Restaurant (1 Rittenhouse Avenue) in downtown Bayfield.

Not only will you find beer, you may just be entered in a ‘crazy sweater contest/raffle’ by your friendly server (who may just call you the next day to inform you that you have won, despite the fact that your ‘crazy sweater’ was a kelly green cardigan). 

8:00 p.m. 4) A GOOD THYME WAS HAD BY ALL

For a memorable dinner head south from Bayfield toward the town of Washburn. Look for the yellow house on your left. An upscale restaurant featuring local ingredients, Good Thyme (77180 Hwy 13, Washburn) is not to be missed (unless you get to Washburn, and then you have gone too far).

If you eat meat, try the meatloaf with blue cheese; if you don’t, the house salad with miso dressing is a highlight. Either way you slice it, be sure to order a dessert martini and try not to spill it on yourself. 

Saturday

10:oo a.m. 5) I KISSED A POLAR BEAR

Traditionally held on the ice between Bayfield and Madeline Island, this year’s Run on Water event was a 3. 5 mile run next to the water on the scenic Brownstone Trail, due to unstable (non-existent) ice conditions. If you place (6th- out of 13- narrowly beating out a man in his 80s who was running on snowshoes), you can look forward to arranging a personal awards ceremony with a polar bear.

11:00 a.m. 6) HELL YES I WOULD LOVE A KIM CHI BURRITO

After a morning run through the snow, head to Big Water Cafe (117 Rittenhouse Avenue). Order a cold fusion (possibly one of the more delicious iced coffee beverages you could ever have), a kim chi burrito that is the epitome of healthy and hearty, and a cookie. Go back the next day and do it again.

1:00 p.m. 7) IT’S FIVE O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE (GREENLAND?)

For a festive atmosphere, stroll to Maggie’s (257 Manypenny Avenue). The walls are brightly painted, there are flamingoes everywhere, they have a good selection of beer and they are open past seven. It’s a great place to load up before an epic trip into the woods.

2:30 p.m. 8) COUGARS AND SASQUATCH AND BEARWOLVES, OH MY

After a beer in town, it’s time for more adventure in the snow. Drive two miles south to Ski Hill Road and hang a right for Mount Ashwabay Ski and Recreation Area (32525 Ski Hill Road). Home to Big Top Chautauqua in the summer, Mount Ashwabay is a charming ski area in the winter. If you enjoy cross country skiing, the Mount Ashwabay/ Jerry Jolly trail system covers 40 kilometers of trails.

If you have an overactive imagination, you may consider skiing with a companion through the quiet and snowy forest, or just sit back and enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from wondering again if you are supposed to fight back against a bearwolf or turn and run for cover.

Take this excitement to the next level when you end up at the top of a downhill ski run on your cross-country skis.

My insider tip? Stay to skier’s left along the traverse and snowplow like hell.

6:30 p.m. 9) BARN PARTY  

After a lively day of fun in the snow, return to the Pinehurst for a shower and a cribbage game and then head back to Mount Ashwabay for the Winter Bash. Featuring live music in a heated barn, South Shore beer, and a bonfire, it’s the perfect way to kick off your Saturday evening.

10:00 p.m. 10) THE BEST FROZEN PIZZA YOU HAVE EVER HAD

Beware the early closing times of restaurants in the winter in northern Wisconsin. But thanks to a tip from our new friend Blaze (a local ski hero at Mount Ashwabay) and his wife, I can tell you with all certainty that if you can make it to a place called Stage Door Bar in Washburn (123 W Omaha St), you will be rewarded with a magical-tasting homemade frozen pizza. Local legend (at least it seemed like legend at this point in the evening) is that these pizzas are made from all organic and local ingredients by an elderly couple who may or may not be elves. They live somewhere near Washburn on a farm and produce a frozen pizza that is well worth the trip to the far reaches of northern Wisconsin in March. Or in any month, for that matter. Hopefully see you this summer, magical pizzas and Lake Superior- I’ve got a gift certificate from winning a crazy sweater contest to redeem.

*Thanks to the New York Times travel feature, 36 Hours, for the inspiration for this post.

Big Water Cafe & Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

A reason to celebrate

Good morning from Boulder, Colorado. With all due respect, Wisconsin, it was time to get out of Dodge. After a fairly uneventful* car ride across Iowa and Nebraska, Dan and I arrived in sunny Boulder Saturday afternoon and let the Spring Break revelry begin. And since then we’ve been eating and drinking like it’s 1999. Yesterday there were crepes and mojitos, Avery pale ales and grilled kale salads. And there was pizza. Oh, was there pizza. I’m now convinced that you if haven’t had pizza at Pizzeria Locale, then you haven’t had pizza. I spotted this place the second we landed on Pearl Street. As we drove past in our Interstate 80-induced haze, I took note of the happy-looking locals sitting at the open-air bar. We would go back. And we did. Yesterday. For lunch. Oh. My.

There was fizzy water.

There was a bloody mary made with 14 ingredients, 12 of which were made from scratch in their kitchen.  “I’m a vegetarian,” announced our waiter. “So I order the drink without the prosciutto-infused salt on the rim.” Damn it. “I’m a vegetarian too,” I replied. If there was ever a reason to un-quit the meat, this might be it. But the cocktail, made with San Marzano tomatoes, was delicious all the same.

And there was this salad. This salad. Snap peas, rainbow carrots and greens dressed in a combination of shallots, whole grain mustard and citrus. Whoa. Hoo ha.

A margherita pizza followed. Unsliced. Hot out of the 1000-degree oven. Magical.

We were full-on splurging at this point, so why not have dessert? And dessert we had- Saltimbocca con Nutella. Basically a calzone filled with Canadian Nutella (it’s made without corn syrup, our waiter informed us) and topped with powdered sugar. Served with a cup of drip coffee. Now that’s lunch.

And, it turns out, we had a reason to retroactively celebrate. When we returned to our friends’ home and I checked my email, I found out that I had been accepted for the this. So a new writing adventure begins.

*There was the incident with the state trooper in Nebraska who pulled us over and placed Dan in his vehicle and then questioned me about a suspicious-looking item he had spotted in my car. “What is this?” He questioned me. “It’s a pen?” I responded quizzically. “It’s an environmentally-friendly pen,” I sputtered. “I got it a film festival for rivers.” Apparently he thought I was going to smoke something with the pen made from recycled brown paper. After questioning Dan about his shiny belt buckle and chuckling when I responded that Dan was my domestic partner after being asked about how we were related, he joyfully sent us on our way with a warning, wishing us happy travels.

Pizzeria Locale on Urbanspoon

Meatless in Wisconsin

My parents recently sent me a link to an article in the New York Times about a vegetarian moving to Kansas City. They thought I could relate. Eating out in my homeland definitely got a little trickier when I decided to quit meat. It isn’t a problem in Madison where you can get your (vegan) chili from Weary Traveler minus the beef or macaroni and cheese from Mickey’s Tavern (hold the kielbasa). Things get a little dicier when you head all-points north, south, east and west. And I spend a lot of time traveling around this state with my guitar and harmonica-playing mate. While I may feel better these days (I’m still quite happy with my choice to go meat-free a couple of years ago, even if I didn’t actually mean to do it at the time), I probably used to be more fun. Raw fries with (beef) gravy at Phil Rohrer’s Lunch? Sure! Frozen pepperoni pizza from that tavern in the middle of nowhere? Bring it on! Now I spend a lot more time looking at menus and saying no. But I’ve learned from my mistakes as I’ve spent some very grumpy weekends with low blood sugar, looking for a place to simply serve me some peanut butter on something resembling bread that doesn’t look like it just took a bleach bath. I now travel to Two Rivers with my emergency paper sack snack stash of (vegan) muffins, nuts, apples and Cedarburg cheese from the Willy Street Co-op. I can wake up and grab my breakfast out of the van (even more convenient when we sleep in the van). Ready for lunch? A little place I like to call the paper sack in the van. Dinner time? Beer (or the veggie pizza at Port Sandy Bay if we’re in Two Rivers and it’s acceptable to not eat meat because it’s Friday). Or, there’s always the van. Everyone wins.

When I am headed out of town on a Friday evening for a show with Dan, I usually ask with a hint of desperation in my voice: “What about dinner?” If we don’t know the answer, we make a quick stop at the Co-op before hitting the highway. A couple of weeks ago we were headed to La Crosse, so Dan made a quick call to our friend Pat, who spent several years there. Pat told Dan to take me to a place called the Root Note. Pat must know me well. Conveniently located across the street from the venue where Dan was playing, we parked the car, dropped off the guitars, and ran across the street to the cafe.

I immediately started drooling over the crepes listed on the chalkboard and then my eyes moved to the black bean chili. Dan asked the question I dread asking. “Is your soup vegetarian?” “Our whole menu is vegetarian,” replied the lovely man behind the counter. I wanted to kiss him. I ordered a bowl of the chili with onions and cheese and a bottle of my favorite beer (the brown ale) from the local brewery, Pearl Street, and told him that we would be back for breakfast. The music that night at La Bodega by Gregg “Cheech” Hall and Dan made me tap my foot a little longer and sing along a little louder.

And we went back to the Root Note for breakfast.

Oh, did we go back for breakfast. There was a coconut latte with organic milk.

A crepe with Nutella and bananas.

Another with spinach and an egg.

It was pretty perfect.

There are some fantastic places around the state serving quality vegetarian meals, we just have to seek them out and shout them from the rooftops. Tag. You’re it.

the Root Note on Urbanspoon