The Vegetarian Option: Ruxbin Kitchen

The Vegetarian Option

Reviews of vegetarian dishes.

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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

I have to confess, I'm a Ruxbin Kitchen evangelist. Since my first dining experience at the restaurant, shortly after it opened a year and a half ago, I've been talking up its many virtues and pleasures to friends, family, even the occasional stranger. Clearly I'm not the only one out there singing and dancing and cartwheeling its praises, because this West Town 32-seater has a knack for getting packed early and staying that way all evening long. And that was the case months before Bon Appétit magazine named Ruxbin one of its Best New Restaurants in America in 2011 in its September issue.

Ruxbin's success is a product of a lot of winning qualities, Chef Edward Kim's abundant creativity chief among them. His freewheeling approach to flavors, textures and regional influences lends each dish a uniqueness while also creating cohesiveness across the menu. He makes changes from season to season, which has drawn me back every few months. You get hooked on Kim's cuisine, and every menu update is another dance card to fill out. The food is always comforting, balanced, true to the ingredients and, perhaps best of all, perennially surprising.

I went into a recent dinner at Ruxbin confident it'd make an ideal subject for the Vegetarian Option's close scrutiny—the menu always includes a selection of veggie-friendly apps and at least one vegetarian entrée.

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The Apple & Plum Salad ($9) has been a mainstay of the Ruxbin menu since its early days. Combining thin slices of said fruits with baby arugula, shaved ribbons of crunchy celery, crushed almonds and gossamer peels of Manchego cheese, all dressed lightly with walnut-sherry vinaigrette, the Apple & Plum Salad demonstrates how carefully building subtle flavors can amount to more than the sum of its parts. Granted, this salad tastes dreamiest when the arugula is peaking locally—around late spring/early summer—and does its bright, bitter, peppery magic to greatest effect. But even in winter Kim manages to dole out superb produce.

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The Mushroom Toast ($10), a newcomer to the menu, turned out to be another prime example of how Kim works wonders with vegetarian ingredients. The dish arrives with a trio of what the menu calls "savory biscuits," each topped with a handful of caramelized oyster mushrooms, homemade ricotta, toasted and skinned hazelnuts, arugula, frisée, thin rings of red onion and a sprinkling of little nuggets of cauliflower. The biscuits were indeed pleasingly biscuity, with a density, flakiness and rich flavor that provided more than just a starch to this deceptively complex dish. Texturally, it lent the whole a chewy bite that contrasted the crisp greens, plump mushrooms and crunchy hazelnuts.

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I think I'm physically unable to sit through a Ruxbin meal and not order the Garlic Fries ($5). And these garlicky pleasures are worth the guilt. Served in absurdly generous portions, Kim's fries boast a satisfying crispiness and thankfully yield very little oil. The chipotle aioli dipping sauce that accompanies them is tangy and just a touch spicy. But perhaps what I like best about these fries is that they bring a big garlic flavor without it being lingering. With a swig of wine (Ruxbin is BYOB, by the way; corkage fee: $5), you can transition back to eating other dishes with a renewed palate.

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Cauliflower Soup ($7) is the soup of the moment, which again just goes to show how veggie-friendly Ruxbin is. It came dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and a turn of fresh black pepper. On the side was a small pile of pickled vegetables that you can load a spoon with before scooping up soup. While the pickled vegetables were tasty, I didn't fall in love with the soup. The cauliflower flavor came across well enough, but it didn't really go anywhere else.

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The Mushroom Étouffée ($18), Ruxbin's current vegetarian entrée, was an out-of-left-field winner. Two sizable fired polenta cakes—think hushpuppies—are joined by broccoli, Kim's rendition of chow-chow, frisée and a Cajun red gravy studded with white beans. The cakes were delightful, crispy on the outside, fluffy and sweet on the inside. But the true champion of this dish is the outstanding gravy—unique and authentic at the same time.

Believe it or not, this round-up doesn't even cover the full veg spread. By holding the anchovy, the Endive Caesar Salad ($12) becomes vegetarian, too. Clearly, judging by creative dishes like the Mushroom Toast and Étouffée, Ruxbin doesn't treat vegetarian fare as a they'll-be-happy-eating-a-mixed-vegetable-plate afterthought. On the contrary, chef Kim puts a lot of thought into the possibilities of what to present for the vegetarian eater. He deserves kudos—but of course I'm far from the first to offer them.

Ruxbin Kitchen

851 North Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map)
312-624-8509
ruxbinchicago.com