Munch, 104 N. Marion St, Oak Park, IL 60301, 708-848-4226
Hours: Monday Closed, Tues-Thurs 11-8, Friday 11-9, Sat-Sun 10-5
In the post-Thanksgiving transition period of what I like to call “body reclamation” – a process of return to normal eating in an effort to, as painlessly as possible, shed the Thanksgiving weight – I suffer. This process is about as American as it gets. It’s one of the strongest and most uncomfortable ways we build community with each other. Having lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city that has made its mark as not only having the most restaurants per capita for a small city but also having the most gyms, I’ve experienced the angst such conditions bring to a populace, myself included.
Another Gozamos food writer is working on an article on the mysteries behind comfort food. Throughout our conversations about this hallowed category of eating, I realized I was in need of some food comfort, for I had grown very uncomfortable with the idea of eating anything. Given my current state, however, this would be difficult, for comfort food is usually naughty food.
It was then that something magical happened. I redefined for the first time the idea of comfort eating to include what many already call “guilt free.” And this happened in the place of Munch, a new nook of a restaurant on Marion Street in Oak Park.
Officially opened just this past July, the beginnings of Munch happened many years before when owner, chef, artist and mother, Robbin O’Harrow, experienced something I usually wouldn’t write about in a restaurant review: One of her daughters got into a car accident.
Staying in the realm of what’s germane for a food article, Robbin quickly had to learn about the liquid diet. And this included making way for food allergies. Watching her daughter languish on what was then standard fare for those on liquid diets, Robbin quickly decided that she’d attempt to put together her own foods for juicing and liquefying.
As you might imagine, this meant Robbin had an incredibly vested interest in finding what would be the most healthy, protein-rich foods for her daughter. With the transition of mother-to-chef, Robbin’s palette also made an incredible change as well. A background that included not only work in restaurants but a Masters in art meant her perspective was not only informed and professional but creative and unconventional.
Around the time that Munch first opened, I was going through a quinoa obsession. Wandering down Marion Street one afternoon, I spotted its menu splayed across its storefront window and zeroed in on the quinoa salad.
An hour later, I had inhaled it along with a vegan cookie dough milkshake. I didn’t have my camera with me and was too hungry to take notes. No matter. The experience was indelible. Munch’s interior was beyond cute and quirky and their kitchen was able to capture that quality of savory and complexity that’s often missing in not just vegan or vegetarian foods, but dishes in general that are, well, not good.
In what’s really turning into a rundown of time, months passed without me dining at Munch. And then Thanksgiving happened, and I was in the neighborhood and hungry and in need of comfort.
Sage, another one of Robbin’s lovely daughters, was waiting tables that night. I asked her what I have to absolutely have if I can only have one thing from the menu. Without hesitation, she mentioned the vegan lasagna or the “meaty” stuffed pepper. The description of the pepper involved chorizo. This, evidentially, was enough to sway me to the stuffed pepper. I also ordered a cup of their featured soup, apple and parsnip.
The soup was a pureed cup of rich complexity and simultaneous simplicity. I forget how complicated parsnips can be. Wikipedia, for all it’s worth, sites a flavor profile for parsnips including “butterscotch, honey and subtle cardamom.” My palette isn’t good enough to suss this out, but I’d like to think that I intuitively taste all this. The apple adds a needed acidity to stand up to lots of fresh cracked peppercorn speckling the soup. What a simple, great opening salvo.
The raw kale salad that came with an order of an entrée also enjoyed comfort-food status but for reasons that have more to do with high quality ingredients. Robbin buys local, sustainable and organic whenever she can. This usually means the kitchen has to work less to make the food taste inexplicably good. The density of raw kale, something that I rarely enjoy, is a bit shocking to a palette used to the much flimsier lettuce and not-much-thicker spinach. Red onion, chopped tomatoes and shredded carrots rounded out the flavors as they were tinged with just the right amount of citrus vinaigrette. I ate a little and opted to save the rest for an after-dinner salad/palate cleanser.
The stuffed peppers were just as enjoyable. A large green pepper stuffed with a standard mix of black beans, rice, corn, onion, cilantro and chorizo seitan was everything I wanted it to be. Simple, savory, well-balance – it was comfort food that was actually healthy for me. And the seitan was perfectly prepared.
I stopped in another day to inhale their version of a shredded pork sandwich in which the pork was actually jackfruit! I didn’t have time to follow up with my questions concerning ingredients and prep, and therefore, I hesitate at mentioning this entree. And so, my commentary will smack with all the sophistication of simple reaction. No state secrets. No insight. Just enticing descriptions.
The texture of the jackfruit looks much like meat and maintains a plant-like starchy structure. You end up missing the melt-in-your-mouth effect that develops in slow-cooked meat. On the other hand, everything begins to take on the status of “new experience” as your mind is constantly challenged with what it sees and what it tastes and feels. The fruit’s acidity plays against the barbecue sauce. The firm bite challenges your expectations. And your body doesn’t cease in a food-coma state after ingesting an entire, sizable meat sandwich. It’s great.
Munch has recently started serving brunch on the weekends and is experimenting with features that are worthy of satisfying that craving for novelty. In the meantime, the menu is creative enough to slake that perennial gripe among the vegans and vegetarians out there. Namely, that they need more than vegetables and dip.
Worthy of Note
The bathroom is quirky, clean and state-of-the-art. It’s also big enough for a wheelchair. Munch is BYOB and carries a line of homemade sodas, Kombucha teas and other dining staples. The interior also boasts lots of rotating artwork, so if the dinner conversation tanks, you can bide your time staring at the walls. You can also lose yourself up above at the hanging Moroccan lights. They represent a little DIY creativity on Robbin’s part and serve to inspire anyone wishing for such sexy lighting.