Hunger Strike—05/14/2010

Where’s the beef? Not at the Green Zebra

By Iliya Gutin

My best meal in Chicago was at a vegetarian restaurant.

It’s something I never thought I would say, or even think. I had never even seen a vegetarian establishment that did not double as an artisanal coffeehouse. Plus, the very notion of vegetarianism is lost to me, for a world without meat, or animal products for that matter, was a world without hope. My thoughts were most eloquently summarized by none other than chef, author, personal hero, and all-around badass Anthony Bourdain: “Life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.” Amen to that.

So how did I, an adamant carnivore, end up at The Green Zebra? The restaurant, up in Goose Island, isn’t exactly a foodie secret. In my constant hunt for Chicago’s culinary finest, the name certainly kept reappearing, as did Chef Shawn McClain, winner of the 2006 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. It is certainly a Chicago gastronomic landmark. But I was naïve. I was ignorant. Perhaps in an overly masculine display of machismo and bravado, the notion of enjoying a vegetarian meal struck me as sacrilegious and, dare I say, evil.

Thus I kept pushing The Green Zebra away, subsiding instead on fine ham and Double Downs. But this charade could only go on for so long–my curiosity was ultimately my demise. All these awards, all these rave reviews.…What was all the fuss about?! It was my sworn duty, as a self-proclaimed foodie, to investigate.

Though I entered the restaurant with a not-so-subtle air of skepticism, which was only magnified by the extreme minimalist design of the restaurant (I find that “trendy” and “vegetarian” overlap way too often), the food quickly pacified my inner blood-thirsty caveman. The menu is one page, cleanly divided among starters, entrees, and desserts, and the waiter recommended about three dishes as a full meal. I gladly complied. Scanning the options, I saw some Maine scallops, the only non-vegetarian option that day, and temptation did rear its ugly head, but I decided to stay true to my mission, instead ordering a variation on French onion soup and a poached duck egg.

In the meantime I enjoyed a peppercorn soda, part of a few “unusual” soda offerings they had, whose flavor remarkably changed from peppermint-sweet, to subtly-licorice, and finally to intensely bitter as the meal progressed.

But on to the actual food itself—honestly, I could probably wax poetic on the beauty of these dishes until kingdom come. They truly were amazing, and I will keep my account brief, as my words truly do not do the food justice. The onion soup, built on a three-onion base, was actually surprisingly light and refined, choosing to focus on the actual flavor of the onions rather than the “cheese-overflowing-the-cup” effect that so many restaurants go for. The traditional bread and cheese ensemble was replaced by a baguette topped with goat cheese, placed inside the bowl. By the time you had finished the soup, the bread had absorbed an ample amount of the onion broth, which, coupled with the tartness of the goat cheese, lead to a very satisfying finale.

The ensuing poached duck egg in potato puree is probably the best single dish I have had in recent memory. What struck me was the absolutely ridiculous simplicity of the dish. It was literally just the duck egg nestled in some potato puree. Where was the saffron-infused olive oil? The seared foie gras? Not even some shaved truffle? The power of fresh, quality ingredients will never fail to astound me. All I had to do was break open the white, and unleash the delicious cascade of runny yolk. Each forkful was rich, warm, and insanely yummy.

The finale was a playful twist on a root-beer float, complete with a freshly baked pretzel and chocolate dipping sauce. A fusion of crystallized ginger in the ice cream mixed with the soothing root beer flavor was creative and a very appropriate way to end an equally balanced meal. As for the dishes of my fellow diners—a creamed spinach-filled crepe, forbidden black rice, cauliflower pots de crème, an amazing chocolate pave—I will only say that they were all delicious in their own right, with that same ingredient-focused philosophy dominating the taste. All-in-all, it really was a perfect meal on every level; tastefully, technically, and, most importantly, tastily. If this is what vegetarianism entails, then sign me up.

And that brings me to my final point: How is vegetarianism really any different than regional cuisine? If anything, it is substantially more encompassing. Of course you have your stages of vegetarianism—raw vegans, lacto-vegetarians, fruitarians (which is apparently not some mystic cult), and the ever present pseudo-faux-quasi-it’s-just-for-Lent-I’m-trying-to-lower-my-cholesterol-ok-I-still-eat-pork vegetarians, all of which act to limit your food intake in some way or another.

But for the most part, if we remove the ethical underpinnings of vegetarianism, we are left with a perfectly adequate set of ingredients and cooking techniques for creating culinary brilliance. It’s not just salads and grilled eggplant. Just as any culinary form has its failures when it tries to be something it is not—think Thai-flavored pizza or any other nightmarish fusion (Philadelphia roll anyone?)—vegetarianism fails precisely when it tries to create substitutes for that which it specifically sets out to avoid. Chicken and beef flavored tofu, veggie burgers: They only serve to give vegetarianism a bad name. If you make the conscious decision to be a vegetarian, don’t let that be an excuse to stop respecting food. Maybe then everyone will stop hating on you so much. Even Anthony Bourdain.