Nothing is as powerful as the tonic of expectation.
And when exceeded, the tonic turns into syrup.
Who would have thought that a Michelin and Bib Gourmand oscillatory restaurant with a James Beard Award winning chef would be a meatless restaurant that offered me a multiple course vegetarian tasting menu? Trust Chicago, the culinary jewel of the midwest, to conjure this decadent delight in the name of Green Zebra. Now those that know my penchant for animal print would find it un-amusing that the restaurant name alone beckoned me to check it out. It is however named after an heirloom tomato! Chef Shawn McLain laid out a clean, minimalist and casual decor with earthy hues, potted plants, cluttered typography on paper menus, leaving room for decadent and beautiful dishes to come out on an array of stone and wood and china plates. With a focus on preparation and clean, slow-food consumption, the menu descriptors were an easy cue to the partnerships with local farmers that ensured the food quality would be fresh and flavorful. And thus commenced the 11 courses of decadence, married with a glass of chilled water glistening with pink peppercorns for an unbeatably unique taste. Who would have thought?
Frill-free, I was thrilled at the absence of a bouche amuse, as the meal started with chilled ramen noodles, served beneath Hawaiian hearts of palm, edamame and ginger. The chilled rendition worked well, giving this dish an unexpected temperature benefit, with the heat of ginger and the earthiness of edamame as a tasty supplement.
Next was a vegan lover’s staple; a Russian kale salad, richly green with holiday themed strawberries (from Nichols Farm) adding to the delightful plate coloring, along with aged balsamic and manchego almonds. Well cooked with a sour twang from the balsamic, the tangy burst of strawberries was a sharp contrast to the raw almonds, making it a healthy, tasty and flavorful bite.
No vegetarian meal is complete without beets, as tried and tested from Vegas to Los Angeles. The roasted chiaggia beets came glistening with fennel, sea beans and cheryll. The beets themselves were fresh and well cooked, with the herb of choice, fennel, overpowering the entire palette with its sharp taste. This however was a good thing, as it added a complex dimension of spice to an otherwise common dish.
While a soup was not my most favorite of staple menu items, the chilled squash soup definitively tasted better than its unassuming yellow appearance. Topped with saffron, tempura squash blossom and squash salsa, it was clearly a hearty squash dish, with an indulgent, creamy texture, amplified only slightly by the scent of saffron.
Paying an homage to my Indian roots was a familiar scent of masala which I caught a whiff of as the braised red thumb potatoes made their way to the table. Like a familiar Punjabi dish called dum aloo, these delightful potatoes were whole boiled and tossed in a house-made garam masala gravy with yogurt and topped with crunchy raw pistachios. One of my favorite dishes yet, this one begged for a naan accompaniment, yet I liked gobbling it by itself, with an earthy spiciness to the broth, and a delectable crunch to the unassuming pistachio. This choice of nut gave it a slight Middle Eastern flavor, which was a whimsical twist to a dish that otherwise commanded cashews.
Perhaps the most elegantly plated dish from the otherwise homey and tasteful kitchen was the Nichols Farm asparagus tart, perfectly shaped into a savory circle with melted leeks, a perfectly poached egg, sheep’s milk cheese and shavings of asparagus to remind us of its origin. Crunchy on the outside and bitter on the inside, it was a well balanced savory tart, with the warmth of the egg matching well with the fibrous asparagus, a vegetable often overlooked in the eyes of other superfoods.
A take on a rendition of risotto was the pearled barley ‘risotto’, with pattypan squash puree, sauteed baby squash and topped with toasted kale to offset the buttery goodness. Once again, using squash as a pedestal, this was a hearty, buttery bite, with well cooked risotto style squash in every bite, and only the crunchy kale to offset its texture. We all need to indulge once in a while, don’t we?
With a penchant for Italian foods done right, the English pea and garlic ravioli did not disappoint, accompanied by snap peas, butter poached mushrooms and alarmingly enough, thyme jus. Beautifully plated with pea tendrils and mushrooms, the aroma of garlic and thyme was an intriguing mix, one which was matched well by the fluffy ravioli and buttery base palette. The contrast in texture of pasta to fresh peas to juicy mushrooms was also a winner, making this yet another hearty bite.
Things moved on to dessert fairly quickly, what with back to back hearty dishes that elevated me to blissful glee. And of course, I got no less than a trio of desserts, something that had repeatedly become a theme with my Michelin adventures. First up was an orange chiffon cake diced into hearts with, blueberry frozen yogurt, hazelnut crumbs and blueberry jus. The presentation itself was a vow for Valentines day, with pink and brown and blue pastel hues that were art on a plate. While not usually a fan of citrus, the orange cake was mind blowing – soft in texture, with the slight tang offsetting the sweetness, especially when eaten with tart blueberry frozen yoghurt. The hazelnut crumble added a textural component, which made this a succulent bite.
The second sweet and savory combination was wildly creative, with squash and ricotta fritters tossed in simple sugar with orange gel, pumpkin seed brittle and coconut foam. Deep fried anything amplifies its taste, and these sweet fritters celebrated the love of cheese and squash. In isolation, they could almost pass for savory, dipped into a chutney of some sort. However with sugar, orange gel and sweet coconut foam, it made for a barely saccharine dessert which would thrill those who did not possess a sweet tooth. The brittle was one that I could have eaten as a whole granola bar!
To sum up the meal was my most favorite of ice cream combinations I had ever licked, and owing to my history with the craft, I knew I had tasted the finest of morsels. For what it constituted of was strawberry black pepper sorbet, pink peppercorn and calamansi cake, a strawberry puree and pink peppercorn sugar. Making pepper the center of a dessert dish, who would have imagined? The spice hit the tastebuds and popped out the eyeballs immediately, even for a spice lover like me! The sorbet was laced with black pepper, but raw black pepper tied it to the cake, which added a level of spice that I had only before tasted with the juxtaposition of wasabi ice cream. The diabolical combination of sugar and spice was rare, and even more rare to be done so well! Sugar, spice and all things nice you said? Plus, with a beautiful plate of peppercorn eyeballs and saturated in my favorite colors of red, this perhaps made it to my favorite (non-chocolate) dessert of recent times.
With all expectations fulfilled, this was one occasion when expectation was not the root of heartache, but the reason for rejoice. After which, I stumbled out into the charming, glittering, and unassuming culinary and nightlife gem of a city.