July 23, 2007

Green Zebra [Chicago]

If I thought San Francisco was a mecca of dining, it was only because I hadn't yet opened my soul up to the possibility of Chicago. While I always believed that LA lacked a substantial foodie restaurant scene, I never thought I would find the Bay at a lack for culinary excellence in any category of cuisine. I was wrong and Green Zebra--with its small plates vegetarian concept--has thrown my faith on shaky ground.

While Greens and Millenium meet the demand for upscale vegetarian in the Bay, they do not meet my new standard for sophistication. Though, I have often been impressed by meatless side dishes, I have yet to encounter a successful wholly vegetarian establishment. So what I really mean is that SF and LA lack vegetarian restaurants of the same caliber.

There were only two dishes with protein on the entire New American menu. Our waiter recommended that we order three dishes each, unaware that we had small appetites and affinities for dessert. We settled on four and were started off with an amuse of Watermelon and Vanilla Soup. The watermelon was clarified to the level of a consommé, though there was added pulp for texture—kind of like a smoother watermelon agua fresca. Refreshed, our palates waited for the coming night.

The Lacinato Kale Agnolotti and Turnip Risotto Cakes were the lighter of our four dishes and were paired as our first course. The Agnolotti ($13) were filled with kale, snap peas, baby squash, and marscarpone, though the most predominant flavor came from the ramps (wild leeks). Scattered on top and pureed in a sauce, the ramps gave the pasta a full-bodied flavor reminiscent of Asian dumplings. An additional balsamic reduction allowed the components of the dish to shine even brighter and you could have fooled me into believing the pasta was filled with a strong, aromatic lamb. It was my favorite dish of the night.

I enjoyed the contrast of textures in the Turnip Risotto Cakes ($14), which were crispy on the outside without sacrificing the glutinous quality of risotto that I am so fond of. The turnip was subtle, though the foraged mushrooms more than compensated.

We wanted to make sure that every major food group received equal representation, so took it upon ourselves to order both the Prospera Farms Chicken Egg ($11) and Roasted Halibut (the two proteins on the menu).

The key success factor for any poached egg is the interplay of the yolk against the other liquid elements of the plate—smoked potato and parsley purees—and the “sponge element” (sourdough bread), which is used to mop up the mixture. The smoked potatoes tasted of pure bacon and together with the parsley and the egg, made for the ultimate comfort food. Needless to say, we used every last crumb of that sourdough to lap up the sloppy mess we made of the dish.

The Roasted Halibut ($17) was less successful and while moist, had flavors which were unfocused and flat. The fingerling potatoes, asparagus, and fennel were good in and of themselves, though their flavors were neither complementary nor unpleasant to the fish. A mediocre dish on the whole--not bad, but not very good either.

Service throughout the night was impersonal, though our waiter seemed to warm up as his night drew to an end. I guess I wouldn’t want to be working on a Friday night either.

The dining room was appropriately Zen chic with moss green banquettes and sandy brick walls, while the shadows of palm fronds took on lives of their own under the soft lighting. If I had to put a name to the type of restaurant commanding a “Smart Casual” dress code, Green Zebra would be it.

Overall, one of the best vegetarian concepts I’ve come across yet.

Green Zebra
1460 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(312) 243-7100

No comments: