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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Mermaid Cafe's got legs
The Schenk's Corner cafe transforms into a great dinner space

Credit:Stephanie Ricketts

Mermaid Cafe isn't new, but in late summer it added dinner to its previously daytime-focused kitchen. Making the jump from brunch to dinner can be a tricky business for a restaurant, as standards seem to go up as the day goes on. After all, a plate of eggs and toast in the morning can be pretty grungy and still satisfy; by dinner everybody's awake and ready to criticize.

Fortunately, there's a lot to be happy about when dinnertime rolls around at Mermaid. First, the menu is focused and small, which is smart for a place this cozy. The ingredients are high-end, with an emphasis on local purveyors like Fountain Prairie and Jordandal Farms and beer from Potosi Brewing Company.

Second, the atmosphere (casual in the daytime) is given a chic touch at night by some very competent table service. Our server brandished a large square of white paper, set it down onto the table, and proceeded to thoroughly explain and notate each of the dishes without going on so long as to bore us to tears.

I didn't expect this much of a focus on the food in a laidback place, but looking back now, I see how silly that was. Good table service is a wise touch for Mermaid at dinnertime. The quality ingredients can mean higher prices. While many locavores are happy to pay for the good stuff, other folks will appreciate the bells and whistles of an attentive server in addition to the food, and be more likely to come in.

Mermaid's menu varies seasonally, with specials changing more frequently. (Check its Facebook page, rather than the Mermaid website, for current offerings.) There's always a cheese or meat board, a salad, a couple of entrees and a burger. At first glance, it can seem like there's not much to choose from, but dig a bit deeper and you'll see that the menu packs a lot of variety.

A picturesque Asian salad was the first in a line of invitingly plated dishes. Thin shreds of carrot and purple cabbage decorated a heap of spinach and arugula. Sesame tofu and a scattering of brown rice gave the greens staying power. The dressing, a delectable mixture of lemongrass, sesame oil and soy, was my favorite part. Though I'd suggest a lighter hand with the sesame oil, I would gladly eat this salad any day.

An order of West African peanut stew was a truly giant serving of food (not that I am complaining, since I had leftovers for lunch the next day). The stew was not especially peanutty, but its combination of chickpeas, spicy-sweet sauce and toasted coconut was fine anyway. The stew was served with brown rice and crowned with wilted spinach. Again, presentation was done nicely here. It would be just as easy to put the spinach under the stew - spinach on top gave the otherwise tan dish a pop of color.

A pulled lamb sandwich with chimichurri, while generously portioned and on good bread, left me ambivalent. The meat was moist and flavorful, but the ingredients of the sandwich lacked chemistry. A cluster of ancho-seasoned potato tacos made for a happier meal. A side of lightly dressed cabbage and carrot slaw served as a tangy foil. These tacos were well liked by meat eaters and vegetarians alike.

The surprise of the night was Mermaid's hamburger. It's out of this world: a golden challah bun, plus great-quality, grass-finished Highland beef. The patty was juicy, with perfect texture. The special toppings of bacon and blue cheese were well-intended additions, but this burger is best enjoyed in its birthday suit. I am adding it, next to Graze's pub burger and any from Willy Street Pub & Grill, as one of my favorites.

After that meal and its hearty serving sizes, no one needs dessert, but there are a few. A chocolate-chip cookie ice cream sandwich was undistinguished but still enjoyable. A lavender shortbread cookie would go nicely with a cup of tea, and I should have taken one home for that purpose. A warm, single-serving chocolate cake came out, quirkily, on a wooden plank, but didn't move any mountains. I'm eager to see this area of the dinner menu grow in sophistication.

I said earlier that breakfast didn't have to be good to be enjoyed, but you shouldn't take that to mean Mermaid's breakfast isn't good. I went back the next morning and enjoyed a lovely piece of quiche Lorraine as well as memories of last night's dinner. What better compliment can I give than a return visit 12 hours later?

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