About two years ago, immediately before departing for a trip to visit Bestfriend, I bumped into Mario Batali sitting at the bar of Otto and asked him where I should eat whilst in Chicago. He emphatically declared “Blackbird!” So around 5:30 PM on a Saturday we stopped into Blackbird to sample a couple of appetizers and a bottle of wine at the bar, as our third stop on a day that was intended to have about seven total.
It ended up being our final stop of the evening, except when we wandered next door to Avec with Paul Kahan the owner/chef of both restaurants. As great as this evening turned out to be, it is tale for another time. This much I relay because, having had such a wonderful experience started by a chef’s recommendation, I asked Paul where else merited a visit and his suggestion was Green Zebra.
Two years later I made it to the little garden-centric restaurant named after an open-pollinated tomato. Every conversation I have had regarding Green Zebra in the two year interim has called it a vegetarian restaurant, which although not necessarily a turn-off may have contributed to the length of time it took me to finally get there.
The first thing I noticed while having a non-alcoholic fizzy lavender drink at the bar was many bottles of Fiji water in the ice. This of course struck me as disparate in what I believed to be a veggie place (the amount of fuel involved in moving water bottled in plastic from Fiji to Chicago is such an obviously poor environmental decision that even some places that pride themselves on corn-fed beef do not make it). Reading the menu, I saw certain non-vegetarian items like anchovies and halibut. Turns out Green Zebra is focused on the garden, with some vegan options, but is not strictly vegetarian.
From a simple, white-heavy wine list we went with a young Chinon, suspecting it would be the most universal with the variant (oft-bitter) flavors of a vegetable focused meal. From a selection of small plates, we chose a tasting option of four savories and one sweet which they turned into eight and two, four choices for boys and four for girls.
Girls: Spring Artichoke Salad, friesago grana, preserved lemons & red pepper foam
Boys: Fresh Burrata Salad, charred shishito peppers and pickled peppercorn vinaigrette
Girls: Chilled White Gazpacho, seckel pears, white anchovies & grilled peppers
Boys: Creamy Cauliflower Soup, cauliflower “angel food cake” and marinate berries
Girls: Warm Blue Cheese Cake, pea tendrils, almond “ice cream” and Riesling reduction
Boys: Creamy Salsify Agnolottis, meyer lemon, black walnuts and extra virgin olive oil
Girls: Roasted Halibut, yellow wax beans, spring onions & creamed watercress
Boys: Grilled Trumpet Royal Mushrooms, roasted white corn polenta & herb vinaigrette
Girls: (dessert) Pea arancini with orange sorbet in carrot juice
Boys: (dessert) Cinnamon beignets with rhubarb, black raspberries, and rhubarb juice.
Preparations in general were simple, creating very ingredient driven dishes. All the flavors were alive in harmony and interesting, and after 5 plates I was nicely full but not stuffed. I imagine those drawn to near-vegetarian restaurants want exactly this. For me, on the back of two huge meals (Alinea and Moto), it suited.