Gourmet Vegetarian Small Plates at Green Zebra

Winter in Chicago is a fine time for trying new restaurants; we have a total of three different “Restaurant Weeks” going on in January and February-Chicago Originals, North Shore Restaurant and Chicago Restaurant Week, which begins February 18. Frankly, with my suburban location and a five year old I can’t always participate in these great deals, but that’s what I have Groupon for. My most recent culinary adventure came courtesy of that Chicago-based company, because I had to use my discount at Green Zebra last week-or lose it.

Green Zebra is an upscale vegetarian restaurant, decorated in a contemporary manner with bamboo and ferns that create cool textured shadows on the ceiling. It’s small, lively and dimly lit (hard to get good photos in this place without a flash, which seems to disturb the ambiance!), and I had a bit of trouble getting a reservation on an evening immediately after the Big Blizzard of ’11-fortunately, someone had cancelled. A sign asks you to shut off your cell phones, and you can check your coat in at the front counter.

I think of my desire to eat at Green Zebra as an attempt to drag my husband, kicking and screaming, into a more adventurous world of food. His diet is what he’s dubbed “truck-driver vegetarian”-all the bread, cheese and grease you can eat, just without the meat. He’s a big guy, over six feet tall, so I think the idea of small plates makes him a bit nervous, wondering if he’ll get enough to eat. He’s also a creature of habit, and likes to visit the same restaurants over and over again. But, because he knows how much of a foodie I am, I can occasionally introduce him to something new, and he likes it. Or at least, he tells me he does. That’s how I know he’s a good husband.

I will say we actually ate pretty lightly. Our waitress said that a good meal of small plates usually consists of three or four plates per person, but between us we had five plates and a dessert selection.

We started out with two cold plates, Hen Of The Woods mushroom pate with date mostarda and pumpkin seed brittle, and a Riesling poached seedling farm pear salad with feta, mint, almonds and citrus. I loved the pate, which was very flavorful yet mild. Even after the bready bits were gone I just ate the stuff with a knife (see how sophisticated I am?). The pear salad was less successful for me, mainly because the pear was so soft, but again the flavors were vibrant.

Next, we had a roasted pumpkin soup with whipped creme fraiche, Thai basil, pepitas and garlic, along with a small mound of fettucine, basil, pistachio, giardiniera, garlic and parmesan cheese. Both dishes were delicate and well-done. The pumpkin soup was sweet and creamy, and the fettucine, although you might think it a fairly simple pesto-style pasta, was accented with these marinated carrots (the giardiniera, I imagine) that helped to elevate the dish into something special.

We also had spiced hush puppies with seven-year cheddar. I was a little hesitant to order this, because my experience with hush puppies to date has been in Long John Silvers’ Fish & More meal, and they were eaten with ketchup. But the guy at the table next to ours, who was also using his Groupon, assured us it was an amazing dish, and he was right. Basically, hush puppies here are these little balls of fried dough, with some cheese melted on top. I think I might come back just for those.

After that we decided we were still hungry, so we decided on the dessert plate, which seemed big enough to satisfy whatever was left of the hunger pangs in each of our bellies. We were right. The plate was a chef’s selection that included three homemade sandwich cookies (chocolate chip and peanut butter, chocolate and mint, and ginger and maybe vanilla, I think), a cupcake and a doughnut, complete with hole. These desserts were rich enough to complete our meal with a flourish.

I almost forgot what was my favorite discovery of the night, something called a pink peppercorn thyme soda. This was a lovely little concoction that was just enough carbonated without being fizzy, with a clean and crisp and unusual flavor. I loved it. I would go back just for another taste.

We both enjoyed our meal immensely, although my husband admitted that he could have used a heartier meal after the long day he’d had. Personally, I found the amounts perfect, but I am about a foot smaller than my husband and he runs half-marathons regularly while I sit around and stare at my elliptical machine as though it was going to do something interesting.

I will tell you what I think is the greatest strength of Green Zebra: its chef, Shawn McClain, knows how to put flavors together, whether it’s to complement another flavor or to accent it. Every dish we tried included some unexpected little zing of something that just made it exciting. I love food, but I’m a newbie when it comes to food culture. I’m out of my element when I go to places like this. Nevertheless, the restaurant had me discussing flavor combinations as though I knew what I was talking about. It’s the kind of place where you can’t help but talk about the food, because it’s the type of place that makes you think about the food. It makes you consider the ingredients separately, and together. That in itself makes Green Zebra special.

Honestly, this is a place that’s a bit out of my price range for regular nights out. But I’m already trying to figure out which of my vegetarian friends-and which of my non-vegetarian friends, since I didn’t miss the meat one bit-I should take back for a meal at Green Zebra.

Green Zebra also features a tasting menu and honors other dietary restrictions, so vegans will have no trouble eating there as well. The guy who sat next to us also said the Sunday brunches there are fabulous, so that may be our next visit.