Surprise in Chicago: A Vegetarian WowBy MARK BITTMAN
New York Times: August 4, 2004
CHICAGO: TO date, there have been barely a handful of vegetarian restaurants in the United States that would tempt the average nonvegetarian; most might as well post a "meat-eaters keep out" sign on their doors. People who wanted to eat extraordinary vegetarian food knew that often their best bet was to visit an establishment run by a great chef and ask for a special menu. The results were predictable: pricey and fabulous.
But a new restaurant, Green Zebra, offers what amounts to four-star vegetarian food almost exclusively. In business since April, it is not in New York or San Francisco but in Chicago, a city best known for its steak houses and hot dogs (which are piled so high with pickles, lettuce and tomatoes that everyone jokes that they are the citizenry's primary source of vegetables).
Green Zebra is wowing vegans, vegetarians and even omnivores with dishes like avocado panna cotta with tomatoes, a silky-smooth concoction with the tomatoes' acidity providing a welcome punch. Then there's the poached egg on a bed of well-seasoned lentils and garlicky spinach purée, with a crisp piece of sourdough toast, a luxurious dish made with simple ingredients. Or maybe roast shiitakes rolled with cabbage and potatoes, pan-fried and topped with a butter emulsion — the ultimate egg roll.
These are the creations of Shawn McClain, the chef, who said he feels that he is undergoing "trial by fire" but "loving every minute of it." He added with a grin, "I did it so I could cook for my vegetarian friends — both of them."
Mr. McClain, who owns the restaurant with his partners, Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and her husband, Peter Drohomyrecky, has put together a small-plate menu that is officially "vegetable-focused" rather than "vegetarian." Green Zebra's offerings include one or two fish dishes and one chicken one (and yes, they're good) buried among two dozen vegetarian dishes.
Whether Green Zebra (the name of an heirloom tomato, natch) is currently the most important vegetarian restaurant in the United States is unknowable. But it is unquestionably among the most ambitious. Green Zebra drew crowds from its opening night and has become the hottest reservation in town, immediately gaining the hip, loud buzz more commonly associated with the long-awaited opening of a multimillion-dollar restaurant run by a nationally known chef.
The reasons for its success are many, including these: Mr. McClain's local reputation (he is a former chef of Trio, an upscale, ultracreative and well-publicized restaurant in nearby Evanston); the resurging neighborhoods on the fringe of downtown; the increasing popularity of vegetarian establishments in general; and the success of the ownership team's original restaurant, Spring, which combines a striking design with an intriguing menu focusing on seafood.
The guess here, however, is that Zebra's popularity is a response to the kind of vegetarian food Mr. McClain is preparing. By now it will be clear that this is neither mock meat nor stir-fried rice and steamed vegetables.
Rather, Mr. McClain is serving the kind of nonmeat dishes that until now could be found only in a top-tier restaurant. Per Se at the Time Warner Center and French Laundry in Napa Valley each offer vegetarian tasting menus at a price (at least $125) that reflects Thomas Keller's involvement. Otherwise, a vegetarian lusting after four-star food would have little choice other than to go to a place like Charlie Trotter's here in Chicago, or Jean Georges or Daniel in New York, and ask the kitchen to create a tasting menu.
On a good night, the chef would accept the challenge and deliver not only a few plates of gorgeous raw vegetables, but also a number of creations every bit as thoughtful, creative and flavorful as those featuring meat or fish.
That attention to artistry is what patrons can expect at Green Zebra, and because most of the plates are small and inexpensive, a diner can create a personal tasting. You can eat your brains out here for about $40.
The menu runs to roughly 30 items, about a quarter of which are vegan (no animal products whatsoever); others can readily be made so. Of the remaining dishes, more than a few feature butter, cream or cheese, and not necessarily in modest amounts. (Green Zebra makes neither political nor health claims, which is refreshing.)Thus a host of dishes are straight from the northern Italian canon: gnocchi, tagliatelle, polenta. These are good, of course, and welcome, but not especially exciting.
Things get more interesting when Mr. McClain lets loose with the creativity for which he was known at both Trio and Spring. Though not every attempt works well, and underseasoning was a chronic problem on both of my visits, enough of the items on this menu are true winners to make Green Zebra far more than a curious and noble experiment. In addition to the dishes mentioned above, I was impressed by a number of unusual salads, especially those based on strawberry and sorrel (think: really sweet and really sour) and peppercress and lemon; by the sautéed patty-pan squash with zucchini bread and a cinnamon-scented tomato sauce; and by the lobster-mushroom galette, kind of a chicken potpie that would be right at home in a very good diner. All of this gave me the notion that Mr. McClain is just beginning to get going here.
Located in a building that is about 100 years old, Green Zebra has only about 60 seats. The décor is ultramodern; even though the room is far from plush (the tables are pretty close together and the place gets loud), it is reasonably comfortable. Similarly the service, while far from four-star, is professional and highly functional.
The wine list, which is Ms. Kim-Drohomyrecky's bailiwick, features a range of unusual wines that suits the restaurant's stated desire to use organic ingredients whenever possible.
The presence of fish and chicken on the menu (one or two of each on most nights) may trouble dedicated vegetarians. Were Mr. McClain and the Drohomyreckys hedging their bets? Or were these the equivalent of the traditional seafood selection at an old-fashioned steakhouse? The truth, Mr. McClain says, is neither.
"You have to realize," he said, delivering what seems an oxymoron, "that it's a misperception that all vegetarians eat no meat. Some people call themselves vegetarians and eat fish, and even chicken. Plus, obviously, not everyone who comes here is a vegetarian."
Mr. McClain insists that the nonvegetarian portion of the menu will remain small."
First of all, it's a gas to cook this way," he said of the vegetarian food, "and a huge challenge — I like that. Also, the future of this restaurant lies in keeping the concept different. If we start adding meat and chicken and fish all over the place, we're just another restaurant."
When Green Zebra opened in the spring, it was the beginning of the growing season in the Midwest and a time when top restaurants focus more of their attention on vegetables. The timing made sense, of course; within a hundred miles of Chicago is some of the country's best farmland. But that farmland doesn't produce much come November, and it remains to be seen how Green Zebra will stack up against the city's steakhouses when the wind starts to blow.
Featuring "vegetables harvested at their peak" will not be easy. Asked about his fall menu, Mr. McClain said: "I said I wanted a challenge. We're going to come up with some great stuff, and it's going to be real fun."