Monday, September 23, 2013

Green Zebra: Elegant Vegetarian Food That Doesn't Drain the Wallet

Green Zebra
1400 West Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60642

Green Zebra is one of the most delightful vegetarian restaurants in the United States, filling the void between $200-a-plate veg tasting menus at high-end restaurants and the casual salad-focused cafe.  Green Zebra has a casual elegance and terrific food that doesn't drain the wallet.

Chef/owner Shawn McCain earned a string of culinary awards while heading Trio in Evanston. He earned further awards for his seafood-based restaurant Spring, also in Chicago. In 2004, he opened Green Zebra, receiving even more awards.  He has since opened Sage at the Aria hotel in Las Vegas.

Green Zebra offers a nightly five-course chef's tasting menu for about $60, and an a la carte menu.  There is a good selection of vegan and vegetarian items.  The best value seems to be to order four to five plates off the a la carte menu to share amongst two people.

Grilled Corn Tamales with sauteed chanterelles and blueberries
At a recent dinner, the Hen of the Woods Mushroom Pate with Vidalia onion marmalade and herb butter ($11) had good flavor and texture.  The Grilled Corn Tamales with sauteed chanterelles, blueberries and poblano peppers ($13) was the disappointment of the evening as the flavors fell flat and, despite the interesting ingredients, was bland.  The Tomato Tart with roasted fennel ($13) featured wonderfully sweet tomatoes.  The most enjoyable dish and a restaurant specialty was the Lady Duck Farm Egg with smoked potato puree ($12.50).  This dish arrives looking underwhelming, but the fresh egg broken and combined with the creamy puree makes for a perfect composition of flavors.
Tomato tart with roasted fennel

The restaurant can be loud and reservations are a must. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Healthy Food With a View in Bagan

Green Elephant

Yamonar (River View), Thiripissayar Quarter, New Bagan.
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) (061) 65182 (09) 204 3463

When Cherie Aung-Khin started working in Yangoon, Burma, she wanted something healthier and safer than what she was finding in food carts. That led her to hire a chef to make foods for her that were healthy and not too oily. Those beginnings led to the successful Green Elephant restaurants in Yangoon, Mandalay and the amazing temple-filled town of Bagan.

The Bagan restaurant is down a long, winding driveway and situated on the river. (There is a similar named restaurant that is nearby that appears to have been reviewed as being the Green Elephant by several on TripAdvisor. Those reviewers say the restaurant is not on the river. Green Elephant is on the river. Make sure you get to the correct restaurant.)

Burmese cuisine is inspired by Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine. You will find curries, but generally with less spices than in Indian curries.

Green Elephant has a wide variety of items, most not vegetarian. But there is enough to select from and many can be made vegetarian on request. Some of the vegetarian items that were quite good include tempura vegetables, vegetarian spring rolls and bamboo shoot salad.  

Green Elephant is a lovely place to enjoy the river and the food between temple visits. Is it touristy? Of course. There likely isn't a restaurant in Bagan that isn't intended for tourists. Who else can afford a restaurant there? Be aware that in peak season you may not get in without a reservation. Your hotel or driver can make one for you, and specify the need for vegetarian items.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

State Bird Provisions

Plenty of good vegetarian dishes at US' hottest restaurant
1529 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

The line starts forming well before the 5:30 PM restaurant opening time.  To get into State Bird Provisions, which Zagat has named among the 10 hottest restaurants in the world and Bon Appetite called one of the best new restaurants for 2012, takes patience.  Reservations fill up six months in advance and from then on it's stand in line and hope.  Get lucky and you may grab a table from a no-show.

Once inside, the casual restaurant is well worth it.  For all the acclaim, there is no pretense or snobbery, just good food that comes out spontaneously from the kitchen.  The owners, former chefs at Rubicon, frequently send guests off with sincere inquiries as to how the meal was and if there were enough vegetarian options (there were). The actual menu is short. Most dishes are not on the menu, but are based on what was available and fresh that day. Waiters bring the dishes by on trays with tags noting the price.  They are all small plates.  The options for vegetarians are tasty ranging from spiced tofu skins or yuba to quinoa and miniature pancakes. 


Yuba with almond pesto.
Burrata on fried bread.
Signature pancakes of sourdough, sauerkraut, Pecorino and ricotta.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

French Laundry: Is the US's Most Expensive Restaurant Worth the Price?

French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

The first time I dined at French Laundry, it was not a pleasant experience.  I had just returned from Europe, had terrible jetlag and started popping caffeine pills at about 3 in the afternoon in hopes I would be awake through what promised to be a marvelous dinner.

By the time arrived at the restaurant about 7 p.m., I had the equivalent of 12 or so cups of coffee's worth of caffeine. The room was spinning and the last thing on my mind was food. Thank goodness my companion had a healthy appetite as he ended up eating his tasting menu and mine too.

So I had to return for a "real" French Laundry experience.

French Laundry offers two nine-course menus per evening - a vegetable tasting menu and the chef's tasting menu.  Each is the same price - $270 per person including gratuity.  Wine pairings are not offered, which is something that's bothered me about this restaurant, but there is an extensive wine list, and a decent selection of bottles under $150.  I ordered the vegetable tasting, but substituted one course from the chef's menu that was vegetarian. The bill for two came to $845.  Overall, the food had good flavors, but the balance was off - some courses were very light, other courses the parts didn't work together, and one course was so heavy it was difficult to consider moving on to dessert.

A substitution from the chef's tasting menu - a salad of Fuyu persimmon with salt-baked turnip, five-spice "pearls", and a sesame crisp.

Salad of roasted salsify with quail egg, pain de champagne, black trumpet mushrooms, tardivo radicchio and oxalis.
Butternut squash porridge with parmesan, Sicilian pistachios and black truffle. Sadly, the truffle flavor was lost.

This dish - Hawaiian hearts of palm - contained so many different parts it appeared it was three dishes in one, with neither meant to complement the other. There were cranberry beans, kale, peppers, Meyer lemon, thyme oil and sauce "Pimenton".
This mascarpone-enriched chestnut agnolotti had lovely flavors with the pomegranate seeds, but it was extremely heavy and seemed out of balance with the rest of the meal.

The desserts were lovely. I substituted a chocolate torte off of the chef's menu and that was followed up by a selection of chocolate truffles. There was also a little gift bag of shortbread cookies to take home.

Service here is relaxed - perhaps overly so. My server spent a lengthy time talking about her upcoming holiday trip with the couple at the next table over. Her voice carried through the restaurant. This is also not a restaurant you are likely to find satisfying for the money if you have experience with dining at a Pierre Gagnaire or an Alain Passard restaurant or even in lesser-hyped restaurants in California. I prefer Manresa over French Laundry in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


202 2nd Street
Oakland, CA 94607

This little vegetarian gem in the Jack London District of Oakland, is the product of Eric Tucker, chef at the vegan Millennium restaurant in San Francisco.  With a bar and just a few tables, so there is often a wait.  The menu changes regularly and, while there’s an occasional miss, there are also some amazing hits. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a night when the tempeh Reuben sandwich is on the menu, by all means order it.  I am not a fan of fake meat, but this is my rare exception. The sandwich is flavorful and hearty (and photographed below).

If you're familiar with Tucker's Millenium, you will be surprised by what's offered here as the concept is quite different.  The dishes are not as complex, which is sometimes a problem a Millennium, but focus more on a few ingredients and clean flavors from local, organic sources.  The concept is small plates that are meant to be shared.

Encuentro is casual, sometimes noisy and a comfortable place to relax with good vegetarian food and wine.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Colorful and Tasty Dishes at La Maison on Santorini

La Maison
Imerovigli, Santorini

While many flock to Oia in Santorini for food, the best restaurants lie a ways along the caldera path in Imerovigli. Here, La Maison departs from the traditional dishes found on most every Greek menu to bring creative touches to local ingredients. 

 Basics – such as fava bean dip – took on a bit more unusual twist with the addition of caramelized onions, tomatoes and toasted walnut pieces; while some dishes were unlike anything else on the island. Strawberry risotto with marscarpone mousse is perhaps the best example. While this bright red creamy dish looks and sounds like a dessert, it is savory enough, with just a hint of strawberry to make a fine appetizer or entrĂ©e.  The beet pasta, with noodles colored with beet juice and tossed with chunks of fresh beets, is another delicious and colorful vegetarian option.

Carnivores will find creativity here too as the fish dishes are prepared in non-traditional ways. The chef is not afraid of experimentation and the experiments work. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Blue Hill: Fresh from the Farm Veggie Fare

Blue Hill
75 Washington Place
New York, New York

Farm-fresh vegetables prepared so their flavors shine make Blue Hill a wonderful choice for vegetarians.  The fixed-price vegetable menu is just $85 and features vegetables picked from farms within 250 miles along with some foraged fare.  The amuses are fun, with a recent night featuring a collection of baby carrots, asparagus and baby turnips on a row of spikes. Accompanying the lightly marinated vegetables were the seasonal avocado sliders. The stand-out course featured a collection of thinly sliced late spring vegetables garnished with herbs and flowers. The restaurant is relaxed and has a cheerful staff. Wine pairings are an additional $65.

A chorus line of fresh vegetables.

 Avocado sliders.
 Late spring vegetables and hazelnuts.
 Asparagus and morels with a farm-fresh egg.
Stuffed zucchini, ricotta, pine nuts and basil.