Editor's Note: The Vegetarian Option explores the meatless options at Chicago's best restaurants. This week we're proud to announce that Roger Kamholz will be taking over the reigns.
If you've had your eye on the Vegetarian Option column thus far, you'll know that SE Chicago editor Nick Kindelsperger has gotten off to a promising start with visits to Longman & Eagle and Green Zebra. But I'll be taking over for him in the search for delicious vegetarian eats here in Chicago. Like Nick, I'm an omnivore who loves vegetables. I've eaten some sublime cellulose in my time, so my expectations are going to be pretty high.
Nick and I held the torch-passing ceremony in suitably swank digs: the dining room of the recently refurbished and reopened Pump Room, in the Gold Coast's Public Hotel (formerly the Ambassador East Hotel).
The chef behind the reinvented Pump Room is Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who won a 2011 Best New Restaurant James Beard award for ABC Kitchen, in New York. That restaurant is dedicated to fresh ingredients and farm-to-table dining, and, as our server on the night of our dinner at the Pump Room pointed out, Vongerichten's latest Chicago venture is very much in keeping with the spirit and concept behind ABC Kitchen.
As we browsed the menu of the day (the server also noted that it is continually changing), we were happy to find quite a few vegetarian options to choose from. Although on the night of our visit there was no all-veggie entree on the menu—somewhat odd, given the restaurant's ethos—Nick and I had no trouble piecing together a broad, filling and flavorful meal from the small-plate, pasta and pizza offerings.
First out was the eggplant toast with marinated peppers ($6; pictured above), off the "Market Table" section of the menu. Essentially an oversized bruschetta, this dish consisted of tender chunks of eggplant and peppers, tossed in a light dressing, atop a generous slice of crusty baguette and garnished with baby greens. It's one of those dishes you've had before and perhaps been less than impressed by, but the Pump Room's take leaves nothing to be desired. The word "faultless" comes to mind—a perfectly executed rendition of a dish that'll never really blow your mind. That said, it was an apt start to our Pump Room meal—an intro to the fresh, bright flavors that farm-to-table dining is all about.
The roast carrot and avocado salad with crunchy seeds, sour cream and citrus vinaigrette ($13)—an import from the ABC Kitchen menu—is a comforting study of richness and texture. If only carrots always tasted this good! The juicy, spiced and roasted spears of carrot, paired with avocado, provide a creamy complement to the bunch of crisp greens and crunchy, toasted seeds.
Eschewing white flour, all the pizzas at the Pump Room are made with whole wheat dough—a feature I found laudable. The decision to use whole wheat flour certainly had no negative impact on the tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil pizza ($11.50), which earned high marks from both of us. Sporting a nicely charred undercarriage, a sturdy but far from cracker-like structure and tangy tomato sauce, the pizza could hold its own among many of the city's best thin crust pies. As you can see, the serving of basil was on the sparse side, but overall the Pump Room surprised and delighted us with its pie work.
For anyone who thinks of vegetarian fare as overly light and unsatisfying, the heaping portion of tagliatelle with pistachios, mushrooms and caramelized Brussels sprouts ($16) will convince you otherwise. According to the menu, all of the Pump Room's pasta noodles are made in-house, which shows in the tangle of tender, al dente tagliatelle that anchor this dish. I was loving the smoky charred Brussels sprouts, grated cheese and juicy mushrooms, too; all in all, a hearty, warming and—dare I say—decadent bowl of pasta.
By now you can tell the Pump Room does a fine job catering to a vegetarian diet. It spoiled me for carrots, for one thing. But my parting thought on the Pump Room isn't about the food. It's about the room. While many were saddened by the departure of the original, the new, renovated Pump Room is an exquisite space in which to dine. Check it out if you haven't yet, if only for a cocktail at the bar. Through all the changes, it has held onto its class.