The Vegetarian Option: Green Zebra
Editor's Note: The Vegetarian Option explores the meatless options at Chicago's best restaurants.
1460 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60642; (map); 312-243-7100; longmanandeagle.com
Veggie Options:Everything, including several vegan options
Cost: Small Plates are $8 to $15, and three plates per person is recommended
Last week, I stumbled through the doors of a restaurant known mainly for its way with pork and whiskey and attempted find some vegetables. This week I walked into Green Zebra and knew that didn't really have a choice in the matter—the restaurant is a completely vegetarian establishment. In fact, this time a "v" next to an item didn't indicate a vegetarian dish, it meant that they were vegan.
As I mentioned last week, I'm something of a part-time vegetarian, and this was only the second time I've entered a fine dining restaurant where meat wasn't even an option. (The remarkable Dragonfly in Columbus, Ohio was the other.) Of course, the Green Zebra is often celebrated as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the city, so I knew that I'd be in good hands.
Sure enough, any fears I had vanished almost as soon as the first course arrived.
Green Zebra's menu is basically all small plates, with dishes being arranged from lightest to heaviest. At first glance, I was mostly just astonished by how low the prices were. I knew they were "small plates," but the most expensive item on the menu topped out at $15, with most hovering around the $10 to $12 mark. This lead me to believe that I could cobble together a few dishes and walk out way under budget. But some of these small plates are, indeed, very small, and the waiter recommended three to four plates per person. He was right.
Instead of focusing on a specific cuisine, Green Zebra pulls inspiration from just about everywhere. My meal jumped around from Japanese, Italian, and German without blinking an eye.
First came chilled somen noodles with Hawaiian hearts of palm, papaya, edamame, shiso, and a ginger-soy sauce ($10). Clean and slightly acidic, nothing else I had that evening tasted anything like it. Regardless, the noodles were a nice way to way to start the meal.
I also tried the carrot salad ($8), a relatively spare dish, which was easily the smallest of the small plates I encountered. Honestly, it'd be labeled as a side dish at most restaurants. Then again, carrots don't usually taste this good, either. Instead of covering it up with a sauce, these were just carrots that tasted sort of unnaturally like carrots. (In a good way.)
But the kitchen really showed off with the heavier dishes. The stunningly beautiful curry roasted cauliflower risotto ($11) was given a boost of umami thanks to brown butter and a "red eye sauce." The rice was a tad overdone, but overall the dish was a success.
Even better was the mustard and caraway spaetzle stroganoff ($12), which was served with hon-shimeji mushrooms, smoked cipollini onions, dill and crème fraiche. I definitely ordered it because it looked like the most filling item on the menu, so I was surprised to find it so balanced and light. Sure, hints of mustard came through, but this was a much more refined take on the classic than I was expecting.
With dishes as light and vibrant as these, the biggest problem with the Green Zebra is that you can easily find yourself saying, "Just one more." Though each plate is relatively affordable, it can quickly add up to a much more expensive night out than planned. The choice is up to you. You can show a little restraint and leave moderately full, or you can go all out and feast on the freshest vegetables in season. I think that's a good problem to have.