Before the Great Recession hit, former James Beard Award winner Chef Shawn McClain had somewhat of an empire in Chicago. He was the chef and owner of Spring and Green Zebra, and he had stakes in Custom House. In the past few years, however, the empire crumbled as the economy went south. The Trio alum closed Spring and sold his shares in Custom House. Green Zebra was the only one he kept.
Green Zebra was named after the heirloom tomato, you guessed it, Green Zebra. As its name would suggest, Green Zebra is a vegetarian-based restaurant. Specifically, they do small plates, with Asian influence sprinkled across the menu. That makes Green Zebra a good comparison, if not competition, to Mana’s Food Bar (located in Wicker Park). McClain no longer cooks in the kitchen of Green Zebra. With his new focus on his Las Vegas venture, Sage, McClain has left Green Zebra largely to the control of chef de cuisine, Jon DeBois. Chef DeBois has been trying to shake things up and keep Green Zebra interesting. He did cooking demonstrations at Green City Market, he started serving brunch, and recently, he rolled out a 5-course seasonal tasting menu that departed from what the regular a la carte menu had to offer. Well it worked – my interest was piqued, and I paid Green Zebra a visit in late January.
In many respects, Green Zebra felt just like Spring. It was located in a gentrifying neighborhood, the dining room was dark and intimate, and Asian influence was evident in the décor. The evening started with a bowl of five-spice popcorn. Popcorn seems to be the new bread for casual-fine-dining restaurants in Chicago nowadays. I’m not a fan of popcorns in general; but I admit that it is a versatile canvas through which a chef can make a stylistic statement and that it beckons the diners to treat the meal more like a show, so to speak. The five-spice – star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, Sichuan pepper, and Chinese cinnamon – is a classic Chinese spice mix used in stews or seasoning on fried snacks. The latter use must have inspired the use with popcorn, which actually worked quite well. It took me by surprise, as I had not expected to feel nostalgia from the food here (granted, this was right before I went back to Taiwan).
First course was watermelon radish salad. I’ve never had watermelon radish before; so this was interesting. Besides having an attractive color-pattern, the watermelon radish tasted like pickled beets or pickled turnip. The green leaves were actually mustard greens. The way my family would eat mustard greens is stir-frying it with garlic. I can’t remember the last time I ate mustard greens raw as salad; so this was another point of interest. The sweetness of the watermelon radish and the slight bitterness from the mustard greens worked well together. There was also a nice mascarpone puree that added richness. The roasted cauliflower and pumpernickel crouton added weight and textures to the dish. There were also toasted pine nuts that played off the mascarpone puree perfectly. This was like eating salad and a cheese plate together: sounds heavy, but it was actually balanced and refreshing.
Next was Yukon potato soup. The potato soup was poured table side at the optimal temperature over a bed of giardiniera, grains of crispy quinoa, and a dollop of crème fraîche. The combination of potato soup and crème fraîche was textbook – rich, creamy, and satisfying. The quinoa gave the soup some texture and substance. Most importantly, the use of house-made giardiniera was genius. Not only was it quintessentially Chicago and perfect for a winter garden menu (because of the pickling), but it also added the perfect brightness to the rich soup.
The third course was gnocchi with Chinese mustard sauce. Chinese mustard is virtually unused by chefs outside of Chinatown; in terms of pungency, it is halfway between French-style mustard and wasabi. I’ve never had Chinese mustard in a hot dish (it is usually tossed with salad or cold noodle), and this actually worked well. The mustard gave it just the right kick. The heat of sauce and the weight of the pasta were balanced by the tartness and sweetness of julienned Honeycrisp apples (which I thought was a great local and seasonal touch). The baby bak-choy was also sautéed perfectly.
The last savory course was poached abalone mushrooms. This was my first time having abalone mushrooms. Apparently, this is a seasonal item only available during the winter. When the waitress introduced the dish, I thought she was talking about the almond-abalone mushrooms used in Chinese cooking; but this was even better. The texture of the mushroom was the perfect marriage between springy and buttery – sounds oxymoronic, but it is intoxicating once you strike that balance. The sauce was a velvety red wine reduction, which worked perfectly with the mushrooms, the braised parsnip, and the fingerling potatoes. My problem with the dish was one of proportion. This was essentially a vegetarian version of steak-frites. However, the plain potatoes (cooked confit and served in whole) outnumbered the mushrooms on the plate. I really wished the kitchen would have served less of that bland potato and more of the mushroom.
The meal ended with a chocolate pound cake. The pound cake was a lot denser than your usual pound cake – I wonder if vegetable oil was used in lieu of butter. Despite the unusual texture, this was a stellar dessert. The chocolate flavor of the cake was so intense it felt like ganache. The cake was paired with an amazing black mission fig jus, which had the most satisfying natural fruit sweetness. On top of the cake was a scoop of basil ice cream garnished with a single candied mint leaf, which provided a crunchy texture. The herbal quality of the ice cream provided a palatable contrast to the richness of the pound cake. For such a simple-looking dessert, this one packed a punch!
Service was friendly yet courteous, fast yet relaxed. However, when the waitress was reciting the ingredients, I could tell from her expression that she was struggling with the script a little bit. Perhaps it was because that the tasting menu was still new (and consisted of dishes not offered in the regular a la carte repertoire) and that the wait staffs had yet to internalize these new dishes. It didn’t bother me though, as it didn’t necessarily feel out of place. I don’t mean this to be a back-handed compliment. Green Zebra had a becoming humility to it. The décor was simple, the wait staffs were warm, and the price was very reasonable. Even the wine list was approachable – it was short but diverse, and most bottles were below $100. Other than the vegetarian aspect of the restaurant (which probably draws specific diners from all over the city), this was the kind of place that I imagine the locals in the neighborhood would happily patronize on a regular basis. As such, if they had a seasoned gourmand delivering the most manicured “white-glove” service, then that would have been in conflict with other aspects of the restaurant.
Noble Square had been undergoing gradual gentrification and had become quite the food neighborhood in the past five years. Serious restaurants with unique yet approachable concepts (such as Mexique, West Town Tavern, Leopold, and Ruxbin) seem to favor this locale. Along with Logan Square, Noble Square is becoming the new Wicker Park, which brings me to the comparison I promised to make at the beginning. How did Green Zebra compare to Mana’s Food Bar? Both were vegetarian, both were small-plates-based, and both had ample Asian influence. However, their creative philosophies were quite distinct. At Mana’s Food Bar, inspirations for the dishes relied on namesakes. The menu liberally alluded to iconic Asian food items such as bulgogi, saag paneer, and mapo tofu. Although that made the menu engaging to people who are familiar with the cultural references, it also created expectations of certain flavor profiles and textural compositions that were at times not met. Green Zebra was different. The menu simply listed the ingredients (and sometimes methods of preparation). All the Asian influences came in organically and naturally, which I appreciated. For a concept that could have been easily “hipsterized,” Green Zebra showed sophistication and approached Asian influence with purpose. Chef DuBois is doing wondrous things there. I look forward to seeing how he will orchestrate the continual evolution of Green Zebra in the future.
1460 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642