Contributing Monkie G Living Staff Monkies
Published on February 14, 2009
I get excited whenever I’m in a new place and I learn there’s a green restaurant nearby. Being a vegetarian from Nashville, I’m accustomed to having to pre-think which restaurants will suit my dietary needs and still give my friends and family what they crave. Regardless of the city, it’s never any fun to have the orders go quickly around the table and then hold up the server for 10 minutes as I try to figure out if there’s a way to get spaghetti and meatballs without the meat or wheat. (But wheat’s a whole other story.)
So, when I hear about a restaurant with a focus on a vegetarian diet, I’m there. This time it was Chicago.
Long known for brats, beer and deep dish pizza, Chicago has also been leading the green way for many lifestyle choices. (There’s even a rickshaw taxi service!) This includes food as well. So, when my good friend, Nashville chef John Stephenson, and G Living’s Chicago-based chef, Vanessa Sherwood, recommended Green Zebra as one of their favorite vegetarian eateries, I just needed to know when and where.
Shawn McCain is Green Zebra’s executive chef and owner. All three of his Chicago restaurants (the others are Spring and Custom House) have earned major culinary awards, rave reviews and “best of” rankings from major publications like Bon Appétit, the New York Times and Food and Wine. McCain was also honored with the 2006 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Midwest.
Green Zebra is located in Chicago’s West Town area. It has a nice modern feel: clean lines, subtle colors and unpretentious. It’s also comfortable. In fact, it can get downright boisterous.
Once seated (reservations are recommended), our waitress asked if anyone in our party had been there before. Vanessa was with us, and she and her husband come often. The rest of us were Green Zebra virgins. “The portions are small,” the waitress warned. (I never like hearing these words. At 6’4”, I have a tall appetite.) “People usually order at least three dishes” (not including dessert), she said. With the menu’s pricier items topping out at $17, I knew we’d end up paying for belly full.
The menu was divided not by appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc., but by flavors. The further down you read, the more complex the dishes became. Intriguing, even – though it still looked like salads, soups and two sets of entrees. We were a party of six, so that meant we would get to try a lot of dishes… 6 x 3 each = a lot of plates. The menu marked “V” for vegan dishes, and they were willing to “V” other dishes when requested, like replacing a creamy salad dressing for something vegan or removing goat cheese. Nice.
Items included: shaved artichoke salad, parmesan, preserved lemons and red pepper foam (tender and musky, balanced by lemon and sweet and light “foam”); roasted mushroom broth, soba noodles, cilantro pesto (delicate and rich); chickpea pancake, fried chickpeas, basil, piperade (nice, subtle balance of favors… I could have had three more); slow roasted shittake mushrooms in crispy potato in savoy cabbage (delicate, complex, crispy and delicious); warm zucchini cake, brussel sprouts, white bean puree, squash blossom (nicer, fuller serving, like a mini, well-rounded plate).
(There was also a very original “heirloom tomato tasting menu”. We didn’t explore it, but we did learn that the name Green Zebra comes from an heirloom.)
Desserts rely heavily on ice cream, but are adventurous. Toasted corn cakes, plum compote, sweet corn ice cream; apple crisp tart, carmel, creme fraiche ice cream; and a seasonal float trio: brown ale with vanilla, almond with cranberry, lemon with lavender.
As more people consider a vegetable based diet, there will be more restaurants like Green Zebra. But at this point, there’s still a long way to go. After being mostly vegetarian for 15+ years, it still blows my mind that there are not more eateries offering non-animal dishes. I have to stop being surprised (though I won’t stop acting surprised) when I look at menu and find nothing I can eat.
Therefore, it was refreshing to see an almost exclusively vegetarian menu get the same treatment you’d expect from a traditional 4-star restaurant: attentive service, impeccable presentation, great wine list, daring desserts. All very good, if not great – and that’s terrific.
So, when you’re in Chicago, get dressed up, make a reservation, bring some friends and have a big night out. You won’t even have to tell your friends it’s almost entirely vegetarian. They will all love it.
(Just make sure everyone orders three or more dishes each. Otherwise you’ll end up having to share half of yours.)