Chicago's New Crop of Veggie-Centric Restaurants
Early autumn in a veggie-centric restaurant feels like Oscar season in Hollywood. On Chicago's culinary scene, that means the red carpet's rolling out for heirloom tomatoes, milky-sweet corn, crunchy peppers and versatile zucchini.
One place bringing the botanical buzz to the Windy City: Bad Hunter, which opened last year in the West Loop. Its dynamic menu reflects Executive Chef Dan Snowden's wanderings around the globe and into the Southeast Asian mom-and-pop diners of Los Angeles.
Fresh inspiration arrives at Bad Hunter daily in the samples that Midwest small farmers and world-traveling food buyers bring by for Dan to taste-and, naturally, to purchase.
"My passion really comes from their passion," he says. When a trusted buyer presented a briny green succulent called samphire (aka sea asparagus, typically harvested along the coast of Ireland), he popped it into a bright spring salad with fennel and citrus. A local greenhouse grower's pungent variety of wild cardamom inspired a standout house-made coffee ice cream this past summer.
Some plant-based restaurants use meat only as a subtle flavor agent, but Bad Hunter takes a more liberal approach and offers some meaty fare, like chicken and sirloin skewers with lemon yogurt and spicy chimichurri. The 50/50 Burger mixes mild Asian wood ear mushrooms with beef from family-owned La Pryor Farms in Ottawa, Illinois.
Settle in on the patio or inside, where the vibe is all caramel leather, lush plants, stone, wood and painted brick. On weekday afternoons, find an affordable snack menu. Just don't skip the fine print before you order. The Chips and Dip is nori seaweed crisps served with a citrusy yuzu cream warmed up with Japanese togarashi. And Three Sisters Garden Popcorn is tossed with a smoky seasoning made from charred corn husks.
Looking for more ways to love your veggies in the town once known as the Meat Packing Capital of America? Also new last year, Clever Rabbit, in the Wicker Park neighborhood, spotlights fall's crispy, leafy and rooty stuff on a crudités board that's more like a small table. It's an artful arrangement made for sharing, with house-made crackers, cheeses, fruits, flowers and spreads.
If you're partial to pasta, the cozy and casual Daisies, in the Logan Square neighborhood, matches up seasonal produce with owner-chef Joe Frillman's signature homemade pastas.
If this movement had a lifetime achievement award, Chicago's funky Lula Cafe would surely be a contender. Almost 20 years since opening its doors, this unpretentious place near Logan Square Park offers a seasonal six-course vegetarian tasting menu on weeknights. Its claim to fame, though: the weekend brunch, including a popular Zucchini Bread French Toast-topped with berries and sherry pastry cream-that proves there's no such thing as too much zucchini.