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Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin picked up one of Forage Kitchen’s seasonal bowls as part of a recent takeout order from the restaurant’s Hilldale Mall location in Madison. Served with a choice of chicken or tofu, the spicy bowl features a brown jerk sauce along with bright-green jerk relish atop a bed of spinach and black beans.

Sometimes, you just need a bowl.

No, not that kind of bowl, silly. We’re talking about the kind of bowl you find at Forage Kitchen.

The kind of bowl filled with leafy, crunchy goodness that always hits your taste buds in unexpected ways.

The kind of bowl that makes you glad you ate healthy without feeling like you were sacrificing anything by eating healthy.

Forage continues to operate in three locations—downtown on State Street, in Monona and at Hilldale Mall on Madison’s west side. Hitting the Hilldale location on a sunny Sunday afternoon was a great reminder there’s no shortage of reasons to appreciate Forage’s formula.

It starts with the local. Most of the ingredients that compose the grain and greens bowls on offer here come from local purveyors in Madison, Milwaukee, Lake Mills and Black Earth—and you can tell. Everything looks incredibly fresh.

As with any mix-the-ingredients type of place, you have the option to build your own grain or salad bowl from a wide range of options. But this is one of the places where, short of needing to account for an allergy or, say, a raging hatred of pickled radishes, you really shouldn’t need to.

Forage’s menu isn’t overwhelming by any means—there are five grain-based bowls, three greens-based bowls and a couple of seasonal specials. But even with a lean approach, it manages to check boxes in several delicious global cuisines.

Feeling like some Mexican? Score a Fiesta Bowl ($8.50), a black rice-based concoction that runs strong on a huge dollop of black bean spread and some seriously delicious pico de gallo. (The black rice on Forage’s menu used to called “forbidden rice,” but that must have been off-putting to customers, as it’s now just plain “black.”) Oversized tortilla strips help to create the impression you’re eating a taco-shell bowl without the actual taco-shell bowl.

Maybe Mediterranean is more your thing. The Club Med ($8.50) has that covered, combining leafy mixed greens with not just a lemon-flavored tabbouleh but a red pepper hummus, too.

Frankly, one or the other would do fine, but together, they’re a flavor festival. And where the Fiesta Bowl leans on tortilla strips, the Club Med mixes in pita chips. If you don’t mind licking your fingers, you could even scoop things up with those instead of a fork.

Thai lovers, meanwhile, get the best option—or, depending on how you look at it, a paralyzing choice.

The straight-up Thai Bowl ($8.50), with a smooth and brightly colored sweet potato curry that meshes seamlessly with the roasted sweet potatoes and a subtle Thai basil pesto, is a slightly better bet than the Thai Cashew Bowl ($9.50), which, while crunchy and full of fun textures, ends up tasting a bit too dry, even with a nutty vinaigrette dressing.

All of the bowls on the menu can be punched up with proteins ranging from roasted chicken to smoked salmon and lentil meatballs. All are fine options designed to appeal to a wide audience, but just like the choose-your-own bowl route, they almost feel unnecessary. Forage’s base menu options are simply that solid.

And we haven’t even touched on Forage’s current set of seasonal offerings. They are, in a word, spectacular.

The leader in the clubhouse is the Jerk Bowl, which disguises its heat not in the warm, brown jerk sauce that camps on one side of the bowl, but in the bright-green burst of jerk relish perched on top of the spinach and black beans. Mix well or be prepared for a startling spice bomb.

The fun secret weapon in this bowl proves to be the sugar snap peas, which provide welcome and unexpected texture while also balancing out the spice quotient and soaking up the sauce. This bowl comes with your choice of chicken or tofu—no need to add it in, although that’s a lot less clear if you’re trying to order online.

Forage also offers a set of salads, but to be honest, they’re simply less awesome than the bowls. If you don’t speak up, your Forage Caesar ($9.50) will arrive coated in sliced hard-boiled eggs that end up offsetting the tang of the dressings in ways you might not appreciate.

And speaking of appreciation, I always appreciate Madison Sourdough’s bread, but the chunks of it that serve as croutons here are bigger than they need to be. Like the eggs, it’s another example of too much of a good thing.

Missing the interior seating at Forage’s Hilldale location during the pandemic wasn’t much of a bummer—the vibe is mostly metal and not that remarkable. But now that warm weather has made outdoor seating on tables and benches at the mall possible again, there’s even more reason to swing by on a sunny afternoon—preferably before the Jerk Bowl leaves the seasonal menu.

Put it this way: When you’re ready to be bowled over, this is the place to do it.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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