Kyle Nabilcy is, among other things, a food writer. Jenni Dye is, among other things, a Dane County Board member. We'll be visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar in each of the county's 37 board districts in a feature we've chosen to call...
The Hunger Danes.
From a distance, you see an EVP coffee shop. You are parched, uncaffeinated. You approach, desperate for comfort. Stumbling through the door, you see people drinking from steaming mugs, huddled over plates containing an unknown food. But when you get to the counter, and see the shop’s logo on the screen of its Belly card-reader -- Oasis? -- you wonder, Was this oasis a mirage?
Indeed, this used to be the Fitchburg branch of the soft-spoken EVP coffee empire, but changed ownership in September of 2011. Now it serves EVP coffee, under an EVP sign on the storefront, and is still often colloquially referred to as an EVP. And before it was EVP, it was Ancora, another well-known Madison-area coffee institution. But it’s Oasis Café now.
Oasis Café is easy to overlook. It's adjacent to office park-y Lacy Road in Fitchburg, which itself is off of the outer urban limits of Fish Hatchery Road, and it's tucked behind the dual distractions of The Roman Candle and Atomic Koi. But we wouldn't lead you this far off of the typical Madisonian's beaten path (at least not in the first post in this series) if there wasn't a payoff -- and there certainly is.
If you haven't heard of pelmeni, you aren't alone but you are missing out. They’re the Russian version of Italian ravioli, Japanese gyoza, Chinese wonton, and Polish pierogi. In Siberia, they were likely frozen to preserve meat during cold winters; in Fitchburg, they're filled with high quality beef or potato, and prepared to order by Paul Schwoerer, who tops them with "the works": butter, curry powder, cilantro, a chili sauce that must be sriracha (certainly, if the copycat recipes online are to be believed), with sour cream on the side.
These, it should be noted, are not the usual pelmeni toppings. In the mother country, toppings don’t typically advance too far past sour cream. Maybe butter, vinegar, or horseradish. Schwoerer says he wanted to liven the recipe up a bit, rescue it from a case of the blands. “Sort of an Asian fusion thing,” he says. Considering Siberia is basically Asia fused onto Russia, I’m willing to let the played-out culinary reference slide.
Also, they are very delicious.
Curry and sriracha combine to form a highly aromatic sauce to sop the bottom layer of pelmeni in, and the cilantro plays along nicely. The beef is seasoned mildly, and the potato is smooth and rich. A savvy customer will order a split order, but I guess you could just do one or the other. If you wanted. (Just get a split order.)
Pelmeni fans already have Fitchburg in their muscle memory; the former Arbat (which served both pelmeni and the often-sweet Ukranian variant, vareniki) was just down the road, near Fitchburg’s Great Dane pub. And this particular recipe for pelmeni was once reeling ‘em in on State Street. The internets are full of loving tributes to the restaurant formerly known as Pel’meni.
The end of the State Street shop was...turbulent. Schwoerer had pelmeni shops in Bellingham, Washington, and Juneau, Alaska, in addition to the Madison location -- the shops outside of Wisconsin both appear to persist in his absence -- before coming back to Wisconsin via Fitchburg’s EVP.
Our visits have confirmed what most online reviews mention: these little dumplings move during the lunch hour. They’re available for takeout as well as for dine-in -- as well as being available frozen for reheating in the comforts of home.
Kyle only works in District 33; Jenni lives here, and both of us think the pelmeni at Oasis Cafe deliver comfort with every order, no matter how far you are from your front door.