It seemed to pop up out of nowhere. One day the lot at the corner of University and Randall Avenues was desolate, the next day the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery towered over campus. The building's glass walls encase an interior that's heated geothermally. It's complete with state-of-the-art research labs, computers for public use, and a zenlike, tree-filled atrium called the Towne Center. The Towne Center houses places to lounge, waterfalls that chime in response to movement, and Aldo's Cafe, the newest place on campus to grab a sustainable bite to eat.
While its sleek design is what's especially intriguing about the new Institutes, the focus on environmental ethics is what's intriguing about Aldo's Café. The emphasis on sustainability is appropriate considering the café's namesake, the late UW professor and environmental pioneer Aldo Leopold, is remembered for his collection of essays A Sand County Almanac, including "The Land Ethic." The quotations from Leopold printed on the café's walls pay tribute to the local hero, but as the dining experience progresses, it's clear the café is really a tribute to being sustainable from the ground up.
Sandwiches take prominence on the menu. The current list of five includes the free range turkey club, built on multi-grain bread from Madison Sourdough and layered with sprouts, tomato, and a creamy dressing. Its simple flavors left me feeling healthy and satisfied. The ratatouille sandwich is a good choice for vegetarians, featuring eggplant, zucchini, onion, pepper, and roasted tomato aioli.
Don't miss the Italian sub - a perfectly crunchy baguette loaded with lettuce, onion, tomato and three types of meat from Black Earth Meats and Fountain Prairie Farms as well as cheese from Roth Kase and Hook's.
"The hardest thing to source locally this time of year," explains restaurant manager Nick Curran, "is produce." Aldo's currently purchases tomatoes grown in a hot house, and roasts and seasons them to bring them up to full flavor. In the summer, Aldo's will switch to purchasing its tomatoes and other produce locally.
Aldo's offers two housemade soups each day. The rotating menu includes potato leek or curried squash, a creamy, slightly sweet soup with a thickness that's especially comforting this time of year. At $2.35 a cup or $4 a bowl, the soup is a perfect partner for the sandwiches.
If you're in a hurry, grab a prepared salad from the refrigerated case. Also ready-to-go is pita with hummus, yogurt from Wisconsin-based Sugar River Dairy, sodas, Odwalla juices and milk pints from Sassy Cow Creamery.
But coffee (from Madison's Just Coffee) and pastries are the choices at Aldo's that really shine. Two large monitors behind the counter advertise the beverage menu, which ranges from black coffee to sweetened lattes to tea.
Aldo's bakes its pastries from scratch every morning, a perk for the researchers who arrive at work early. A peanut butter cookie, baked that morning by the café worker who served it, was obviously fresh, perfectly peanut buttery and comforting in a Grandma's-baking sort of way.
My advice is get there early for the widest selection of bagels, cookies, croissants, muffins and other pastries.
Aldo's serves their food on either washable china or in biodegradable to-go containers. "We make sure to ask each customer whether they'd like their food for here or to go," explains Curran. "We really want to focus on eliminating our waste." Additionally, the café partners with the university to compost its pre-consumer waste.
Aldo's will be one of three places to eat in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Steenbock's on Orchard will open January 18 for lunch service (with dinner service beginning February 20), and will feature a similar sustainable menu, with the addition of burgers and a "sustainable catch." The restaurant will be a full-service, sit down experience. Both Steenbock's and Aldo's Café are operated by Food Fight, Inc.
The Dairy Bar will open in late March and will serve Babcock Hall ice cream, yogurt, soda and other treats.
While Aldo's food may not pack quite the punch one would expect of a café in the new Institutes for Discovery, its offerings are certainly a welcome addition to west end of campus. And with options as environmentally friendly as these, I'm sure Aldo himself is smiling.