In "Vegetarianism is passé," an essay published in the March 8 issue of Time Out Chicago, writer Lauren Viera takes a few shots at "fake meat." You know what she's talking about: those vegetarian and vegan food products meant to mimic the taste and texture of animal flesh. The kind of stuff trafficked by vegan restaurants like Karyn's on Green, to which I paid a visit recently for this week's Vegetarian Option column. While tracing the path she taken away from a vegetarian diet, Viera assails fake meat for being not only "dumb" ("'soyrizo' is an oxymoron," she writes), but also rendered unnecessary due to the increased prevalence of "humanely raised" livestock—hence her reasoning for getting back on the meat wagon. Predictably, the essay caused a dust-up, drawing bitter comments from even a member of the TOC staff.
The exchange raised a lot of questions; one that struck me, particularly with respect to Karyn's, was whether Viera had a point about fake meat. Is everyone who's eating this stuff, deep down, really just hankering for a good, old-fashioned steak? Basically, does it warrant consumption in it own right?
I could be dead wrong about this assumption and guilty of dietetic profiling to boot, but it seemed to me that the rather large dinner crowd I encountered at Karyn's on Green didn't consist of a roomful of vegans, sheepishly getting their fix of laboratory-grade, chemically approximated flesh. Most people, in fact, looked to be omnivores who may have been taking a break from real meat for the evening, or wanted to try a new cuisine they'd been hearing about, or were dining with a vegan friend to accommodate that person's eating habits. Or, maybe, they simply came to eat good food that happens to be vegan.
A bite of Karyn's chorizo slider (two for $10) makes a strong case for the latter. The loose-meat-style "chorizo" is pleasantly smoky and spicy; while it's not as juicy as its non-vegan counterpart, the flavors are equally as deep and comforting. Along with a fresh, crusty bun, the sliders come with portobello bacon, frisée, and a sweet tomato-pepper jam on the side. I'm not tracking with the chefs' decision to put the dab of chipotle aioli on the underside of the bottom bun of the slider. I suppose in that spot on the exterior of the bun lets you taste the sauce better, but you're also bound to put your fingers right in it while holding the slider. Nevertheless, if this qualifies as a veggie burger, it's easily one of my favorites in the city.
Not everything on the Karyn's on Green menu is reliant on fake meat—nor is everything as revelatory as the sliders. Take the linguini with sage-walnut pesto and charred cauliflower ($14), which consists of vegetables and pasta noodles tossed in pesto sauce. If you love sage, you're going to love this dish. For me, it was simply okay. The pesto was intensely aromatic, flush with the piney flavors of sage—to the extent that any hints of walnut were drowned out.
Turning back to the fake meat, the sausage & broccoli pizza ($10) with creamy, garlicky white bean mash and red chili had big flavors, a cracker crunch to the crust, and a savory-vegetal complexity of oven-charred broccoli. The white bean and salty sausage complemented each other nicely. Sure, the sausage qualifies as fake meat, but I respect that Karyn's didn't simply cop out and use a perhaps-questionably-flavored vegan cheese on this pizza and instead made a delicious cheese substitute out of white beans, of all things.
Although my dining companion from my recent dinner at Karyn's swears by the raw broccoli soup ($8), which is a purée of broccoli, almonds, garlic, and lemon juice, my enthusiasm isn't so strong. It's nothing if not flavorful, with great acidic brightness and green-vegetable undertones, but the heavy hit of garlic can be a little off-putting. This soup, uncooked as it is, seems to reside on that blurry border between vegan and health food. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, if you don't mind smelling like garlic awhile.
I suspect I'm not alone when I say that vegan cuisine, including and especially the fake meats, when executed at the level they are at Karyn's, have an appeal beyond the obvious scenario of satisfying the former meat-eater's nostalgia.