Friday, September 25, 2009

Chicago: Green Zebra Review

There was a point in my life when I thought being a vegetarian might be a possibility. I ate chicken and fish, but felt maybe I could give those up. But as I've developed a love of food, I've broadened my horizons, indulging in other meats, and pretty much made the idea of being a vegetarian an impossibility. My enthusiasm for food means I am willing to try just about anything. Now I cannot imagine not wanting to eat pork in all its forms. I associate vegetarian with "limits".

When I am dining with vegetarians, I'll scan menus to make sure there is something available for them. And let me tell you, this has made me realize not many good restaurants actually make exclusively vegetarian dishes. So few restaurants that bill themselves as vegetarian serve more than bland, distasteful health food dishes that leave you hungry. I was impressed then when the unique menu of Green Zebra, which calls itself a "contemporary vegetarian experience", excited me. Not only were these vegetarian dishes, but ones that employed thoughtful juxtapositions of ingredients, many that I would consider under-utilized, such as farro or fava beans.

Our choices from Green Zebra's cocktail list: Bees Knees (North Shore Gin, lavender honey, lemon, up) and The Ponchatoula (Ron Botran Rum, Summer Berries, Mint, Rocks).

The menu here is made up of small plates listed in the order of richness, not size. The waiter told us that the restaurant suggests three dishes per person and when asked for specific recommendations, he helpfully mentioned two from each section (most of which we had already been eying).

We decided to start with two salads:

Nichol's Heirloom Carrot Salad, pea shoots, sesame seeds, tarragon, carrot ginger sherbert

Iron Creek Farm Heirloom Tomato Salad, fried pickles, buttermilk dressing, herbs

Of these two, the tomato salad was the clear winner. The carrot salad was our least favorite dish of the meal because it was underwhelming in flavor; the carrots lacked the sweetness I associate with fresh, in-season vegetables. The sherbert was strange, mild and slightly sweet, but didn't taste like much of anything. On the other hand, the tomato salad was well-seasoned with a savory saltiness. The fried pickle was small but added a delicious crunch as did mini-crostini that topped the salad.

Not long after the salads arrived, we received bread and an amuse bouche. That made it clear to us that, at least on this night, the restaurant's pacing was off. The amuse was a deconstructed squash tart, fresh and tasty.

For our next two dishes we decided on:

Farro Risotto, lemon gremolada, zucchini, sweet peppers, mascarpone

Sweet Corn & Yukon Gold Potato Hash, fried quail egg, roasted cauliflower, buttermilk

Both were highlights of the meal. The farro was buttery with a tender crunch and the whole dish had the sweet aroma of peppers. The hash was like a giant tater tot topped with an egg. We were a little surprised to discover that the corn was not incorporated into the potato; instead, the roasted kernels were mixed in with the cauliflower and formed a bed for the potato.

Our last two:

Rye SpƤtzle, eggplant schnitzel, caraway, parsley, mustard seed

Hawaiian Kona Kampachi, edamame, shiitake mushrooms, wasabi vinaigrette, sesame

The spatzle was excellent and struck me as a very original dish. Though the spatzle was advertised as the main component, the eggplant schnitzel visually carried this course. The kampachi was the one exception on the vegetarian menu. Green Zebra so successfully pulls off its vegetarian dishes that it very well could have gotten away without this dish. But the Asian flavors were prominent and the wasabi gave the whole thing a nice kick.

If more places followed Green Zebra's example, I think more of us could learn to live without meat - well, at least, more of the time!

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