Green Zebra, 1460 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, greenzebrachicago.com
Hours: Tue-Thu 5:30-10:00pm Fri-Sat 5:30-11:00pm; Sun 5:30-9:00pm
Yes, you read that right. I’m a social carnivore. What’s that? Well, my dear Gozadores, that’s a state of consciousness a person reaches when she is (a) too lazy to defrost every single night, (b) too time-pressed to make anything that doesn’t plop out of a can, (c) kinda, sorta, hella grossed out by the feel of slimy raw meat and (d) a believer in the Original Food Pyramid and eating meat in moderation.
That is why I take every restaurant outing as an opportunity to get my protein the old-fashioned way. And that is why I had my reservations about Green Zebra, arguably Chicago’s most upscale, fiercely vegetarian contemporary American restaurant. I know this hesitation is rooted in some irrational, old-wives’-tale of a theory of growing old anemia-free—so veggies, please, cease and desist on the angry emails. It’s just that as long as I’m paying for a meal, and as a person who enjoys a succulent churrasco or thick cuts of bacon, I may as well order meat. Naw mean?
Well, if it’s the taste of meat I was worried about missing, the hen of the woods mushroom pate put that to rest. The pate—a nutty, robust spread—was whipped to moussey-smoothness and served in a glass, easy to scoop and slather on slices of toasted bread already topped with candied date preserve. Sprinkled with tiny cubes of sharply vinegary pickle, it really did taste as rich as the “real” thing.
But I’m sure the folks at Green Zebra aren’t going for imitation, of meat or otherwise. The space itself reflects the restaurant’s philosophy of creating a unique environment and making “dining as an experience that requires the use of all the senses.” To that end, they pretty much nail it, what with the easy-on-the-eyes light sage green walls and neutral colors, pretty touches like straw-textured tabletops and the fragrance of fresh seasonal ingredients wafting from the kitchen. (It’s a little loud in the dining room, but we blame it on the busy Friday night visit.)
While a simple soup of roasted pumpkin with whipped creme fraiche and pepitas deftly showed off Green Zebra’s seasonal sensibilities, it was a flatbread topped with goat cheese, onion jam and a nest of arugula and a Riesling poached pear salad with marinated feta that surprised the palate with bold, successful taste combos. Of course, it possibly being the coldest night in all of winter (yeah, that -22F windchiller back in January, remember?), my table gravitated toward the richest-sounding dish like a toddler to a cardboard box—the butternut shaomai with sage, brown butter, blue cheese and poached shallots. Once we popped those suckers, we couldn’t stop. They literally melted in my mouth, the sweet, buttery goodness combining with the cheese’s lightly salty taste. The only mistake was letting one sit for too long on the table, which led to the shaomai’s skin to harden around the edges.
But that was small thing to have to swallow in exchange for proof positive that an inventive meal can be had without meat and potatoes. I suspect that my future holds more adventures in social vegetarianism.