Vegetable-centric. Flexitarian. Vegetarian with benefits. Whatever name you give it, the meaning is still the same. More and more people — yes, even in this meat-crazy town — are turning toward vegetables as they seek out a healthier diet, both for themselves and for the planet. But don’t worry, no one’s suggesting we give up animal protein completely. In fact, some of the most spectacular vegetable dishes around can be found in restaurants that are willing to give garden goodies their due without shying away from meat (locally and sustainably raised whenever possible, of course).
To that end, these are not your grandma’s green beans, poured out of a freezer bag and cooked beyond recognition. Instead, we’re talking heirloom varietals, locally grown, and lovingly prepared. You’ll find them charred, grilled, roasted, pickled, steamed, puréed, sautéed, and flash-fried; they’ve become the focal point of a dish rather than a mere garnish. Inspired by our local farmers markets and producers, these endlessly inventive chefs and restaurateurs are keeping pace with our shifting attitudes toward food and healthy lifestyles. We got to the root of it all with chefs at some of the city’s freshest spots.
802 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-265-1745
This “veg-forward” Restaurant Row darling keeps it real. “We’re not necessarily trying to be healthy for the sake of being healthy,” Chef Dan Snowden admits, “but in highlighting the array of veggies the Midwest has to offer, we are providing a more ‘sessionable’ and sustainable meal.” It’s the way he likes to eat at home, and he knows that today’s customers want to feel good about what’s on their plate. Winter dishes like Charred Brussels Sprouts ($12) with fried arepas, spicy tomato, and garlic yogurt or the meaty-but-meatless Wood-Grilled Forest Mushrooms ($16) with parsnip custard, smoked pecans, and puffed nori are testament to the flavor heights vegetables can attain.
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “The onion. It’s sweet, it’s savory, it is the start to nearly every recipe I make. There are so many varieties of onion: Spanish, sweet Vidalia, leeks, scallions, chives, garlic, and ramps, just to name a few, [and] all with their own unique flavor and application. I can’t imagine cooking without them.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “I tend to reach for the mortar and pestle more than anything else. There’s no better way to feel connected to cooking than with this primitive piece of equipment. [It makes] the smoothest pesto, the most beautiful salsa verde, and the best aillade (it’s a nut sauce) you’ll ever eat.”
2015 W. Division St., Chicago, 773-697-8711
Wascally wabbits know that vegetables are delicious, and this Clever Rabbit is no exception to the rule. Owner Chris Haisma and Executive Chef Nathaniel Herrera bring the vegetables to Wicker Park every which way. They are “veggie focused, but [not] a vegetarian restaurant,” says Haisma, “so you will see proteins on the menu. We offer a healthy approach to dining in a city not necessarily known for it.” In the winter months, their best sellers include the Carrot Dumplings ($12), with roasted carrots, preserved lemon, and herbs, and the Roasted Cauliflower ($13) with pickled veggies and cauliflower puree. In the warmer months, they serve a spectacular Crudité Board with all manner of roasted, raw, and pickled veggies, along with house-made crackers and toppings.
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “That depends on the time of year. Right now, in the middle of winter, it’s root veggies.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “Our combi oven. Our service kitchen isn’t large, so maximizing every part of it was key to allowing us to create the style we wanted. You can do so many different things with [it].”
74 W. Illinois St., Chicago, 312-527-5586
With a focus on all things light and fresh, Chef CJ Jacobson has brought a bright-and-sunny Mediterranean feeling (think spreads, dips, mezze, and small plates) to this River North pleaser from Lettuce Entertain You. “I think I put an influence on vegetables simply because I’m used to eating them,” says Jacobson, who moved from Orange County to Chicago a few years ago. “Coming from California, [where] the growing season is longer and the amount and quality of vegetables is unmatched.” Consequently, a walk through the bounty of Chicago’s Green City Market or other local markets can inspire delicious ideas, such as the Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower ($10) with house-made yogurt and local honey or the Toasted Almond & Garlic Spread ($9) with tahini, Castelvetrano olives, and fresh herbs.
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “The eggplant — wow, what a wonderful vegetable! I really had no idea it could be cooked so many ways with such an infinity of flavorful results. At Ēma, we roast it whole, char it whole, grill it, and pan-fry it. My favorite method is slowly cooking it on the stovetop for two or three hours until it’s well caramelized.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “We probably couldn’t live without our Rational Oven. It is in charge of cooking 50 percent of our product!”
1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8945
When restaurateur Amy Morton first opened Found in Evanston five years ago, she knew that she would encourage her patrons to eat their vegetables. “Why vegetables?” asks Morton. “Why not, I say? The concept always was and remains based on sustainability and health for the environment and for ourselves, so I wanted Found to have a strong grain and vegetable focus.” We’ll gladly eat the famous Kale and Swiss Chard Salad ($12) with golden raisins, pickled chard stems, candied nuts, and seeds, all tossed in apple vinaigrette. And the Sweet Potato & Coconut Cream Flatbread ($16) topped with chopped peanuts, spicy greens, and pickled onions shows that a vegan dish can be just as scrumptious as one dripping with cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “Clearly root vegetables, as they are truly the only veg we can get all year in the Midwest — and squashes too.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “I’d have to say it is the wood-burning oven. It’s such an incredible addition to any kitchen and [it] has insane versatility.”
2537 N. Kedzie Blvd., Chicago, 773-489-9554
Nearly 20 years ago, chef/proprietors Jason Hamel and Amalea Tshilds blazed a trail in Logan Square that many have since followed, leading the then-nascent farm-to-table movement in Chicago. Vegetables motivate these chefs. “The sheer near-infinite variety makes my life interesting,” says Hamel. “And working closely with the people who tend to the farms and gardens from which we buy brings a story to each product. I like [the] stories, the depth of knowing who made something and why. Vegetables tell these stories in many curious ways.” In addition to a la carte items like Grilled Kohlrabi ($11) with black lime, quark cheese, and sprouted seeds, Lula Cafe offers a six-course Vegetarian Tasting Menu ($60) at dinner.
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “Cauliflower — without a doubt. Texture, color, shape. It can take serious seasoning and flavor but it also gives so much to a preparation.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “The Vitaprep 3. It’s really the only indispensable piece of equipment. You could do the whole restaurant on a log fire. But for sauces and purees, soups and vinaigrettes, you need the Vitaprep.”
565 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-466-1950
The 2018 Jean Banchet Award-winning Chef of the Year, Andrew Zimmerman, is known for his culinary alchemy; at both globally inspired Proxi and the more refined nearby sister restaurant Sepia, he spins gold out of humble and precious ingredients alike. “For me, focusing on vegetables is more about taste than anything else,” says Zimmerman. “They offer such an array of textures, flavors, and preparations, it’s easy to make them a main focus of the meal.” The Tempura Elotes ($8) are a starter found on nearly every table; sweet corn kernels battered and fried to a happy crunch and drizzled with lime crema, a shower of chives, aged cheese, and cayenne pepper sprinkled over. The Grilled Sweet Potato Salad ($11), topped with sesame yogurt, chiles, citrus, and cashew dukkah, is another cold-weather dish that satisfies.
Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “Squash is very versatile and we prepare it in a number of ways here. We shave zucchini into thin ribbons for a light, bright salad and roast butternut squash for a heartier application.”
Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “Proxi’s custom-made wood-fire grill. I’m able to control the temperature in different areas and cook a number of dishes at once.”
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.