The Vegetarian Option: Taxim
At one point during my meal at Taxim, there were four fetas on the table. An impromptu taste test suggested that among the portions of salty, crumbly cheese within arm's reach (crowning four different vegetarian Taxim dishes), at least two distinct varieties were represented—and both were delicious in their own way. Any place that traffics in Greek cheeses this good, and takes the extra step of parsing between different styles of fetas to complement specific dishes, is my kind of place.
Turns out Taxim—a Greek restaurant, handsome in its restrained decor, that lies a stone's throw from Wicker Park's six corners—makes many of its wares in-house, from the breads to the pitas to the savory phyllo pastries. The produce is seasonal and local. But the olives and the feta? Those have to come from Greece. Word from the kitchen is, you just can't get better elsewhere.
Taxim's continually updated menu is divided into hot and cold small plates and mains. Although there were not veggie-friendly mains available on my visit, there were plenty of meatless small plates. The pantzária me karydoskordaliá ($8), off the cold plates list, included roasted red beets, marinated greens, crushed walnuts, and feta (duh), all ringed by a Thracian-style walnut skordaliá—a chunky, tangy, garlicky purée. The nuts-cheese-beets salad is certainly well-worn culinary territory, but Taxim's rendition manages to be lively and interesting thanks to the funky-acid kick of the skordaliá complementing the luscious beets and mouth-watering feta.
The revíthia kas. fróssos ($6), essentially Taxim's take on hummus, again elevated a familiar staple of Mediterranean cuisine. The spongy and moist housemade pita showed signs of care, and the puréed spread itself featured fresh chickpeas—a rare and welcome twist. The fluffy pita and the bright, rich, nutty spread worked great together.
The xoriátiki saláta (heirloom tomato salad; $9) is a recent seasonal addition to the small cold plates menu. This greens-less, Greek salad-esque plate combines cucumber, slices of multi-colored heirloom tomatoes, red onion, feta, bell peppers, and thinly sliced rings of jalapeño. Along with the vinaigrette, that little jolt of heat gave the whole salad a bright vibrancy that belied its simplicity.
The vegetarian hot plates were more hit-and-miss. The "Chicagópita" ($11) featured ramps, fresh dill, goat feta, and lemon, all wrapped up in a housemade phyllo pastry. The subtleties of leek-like ramps and dill came through well, but the weight of cheese and pastry, as well as a pronounced saltiness, seemed to drag down the dish.
I much preferred the fakés kas. fróssos ($6), a decadent bowl of well-spiced green lentils, barrel-fermented sheep feta, and balsamic reduction. The lentils and balsamic struck a wonderful balance of savory and sweet.
Overall, Taxim's vegetarian offerings proved varied, fresh, and inventive. The chefs can get fairly liberal with the drizzles of olive oil; while the oils they used were fragrant and flavorful, the amount seemed unnecessary in a few instances. But I'm not about to fault their taste in, nor their generous application of, outstanding feta.