I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to celebrate Black History Month in February especially since I didn’t vote for Obama (don’t worry, I didn’t vote for McCain, either, so I can piss off my entire constituency equally). So I was grateful the process was a little clearer for Chicago Restaurant Week. You picked a place on the list of participating restaurants, make a reservation, and get a 3-course prix-fixe dinner at a high tone joint for $32. Unfortunately most of the places seemed to be hotel establishments or steakhouses, or other places which I tend to avoid unless I’m on business, since they tend to remind me of business and I don’t like to make that association while dining with the Mrs. That’s why we only eat at strip club happy hour buffets.
But running concurrently with Chicago Restaurant Week is Chicago Chef Week, in which you can choose from a list of participating restaurants, make a reservation and get a 3-course prix-fixe dinner for $32. However, these restaurants seemed more like the cooler little brother of the guy who listens to nothing but classic rock. Sure there’s nothing wrong with The Who, but why not give the Duke Spirit a chance? Indeed, I found a restaurant on the list that I’ve been wanting to try for a couple years – Green Zebra. It’s a vegetarian joint for people that have money leftover from not buying dietary staples like meat, so I decided to surprise the almost vegetarian Mrs. and told her to meet me after work. Upon arrival, I could tell I was in over my head but instead of being the a-hole indie hipster who sneers at you for not knowing Neutral Milk Hotel, they were more the cool hipster buddy that will make you a mix 8-track of some stuff in case you get bored listening to the Neil Sedaka.
It was dark and contemporary, yet minimalist, kind of like my brain. The hostess checked our coats and promised not to steal my porn if I wanted to check my messenger bag containing my laptop.
The Chef Week special included cauliflower soup, of course with cocoa foam, a parsnip ravioli, poached egg on applewood smoked mashed potatoes, and a chocolate tart. Sounded good. We ordered up one of those, and to add a little variety we created a second meal from the rest of the menu. After consulting with our server, we added a carmelized endive salad with blood orange, beets, rosemary honey and pecans; ricotta gnocchi with roasted heirloom squash, rapini, and preserved lemon; buttermilk polenta with braised artichokes, chestnuts and pickled peppers; and some sweet potato potstickers.
As the dishes arrived, two to three at a time, we were blown away. I’ve heard of places like this on the Food Network but never really experienced one. It was like having sex for the first time, except much more satisfying. I thought I was groundbreaking when I mixed a package of macaroni and cheese with a can of pork and beans, but this chef took things to a whole other level. If I had to pick the weakest, I’d say the carmelized endive could go – it was good, but you can only do so much with lettuce. At least in public. And maybe it was because I was approaching my gastric limit, but after the first couple potstickers I was ready to surrender. The highlight might have been the poached egg dish, for which I had the lowest expectations. But the applewood smoking gave the dish a distinct taste of bacon, and who doesn’t love bacon? Even vegetarians secretly wish they weren’t so disdainful of meat so they could polish off a slab now and then. Overall, the simple dish took on the flavor of a full-on grand slam breakfast without the grease, screaming kids or hurried waitress.
Most of the patrons were winos, slugging Mogan David out of brown paper bags, but we decided to give their N/A cocktail list a try. I must have checked my masculinity with my coat when I arrived, because I felt no shame in ordering the Pink Peppercorn Thyme Soda. Other than telling you it had a hint of root beer flavor, but not really, it’s indescribably irresistible. It’s like the Crystal Bernard of libations.
I won’t lie – it was a little pricey, but Chef Week knocked about $20 off our bill and I have to say it was well worth it. But we’ll probably be eating mac n’ cheese n’ pork n’ beans the rest of this month.