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Cauliflower with beluga lentils from Longman & Eagle

Garden Party

by Lisa Shames | Photo: Clayton Hauck | Men's Book Chicago magazine | August 20, 2013

You know something’s afoot when, at restaurants with names like The Purple Pig, Pecking Order and Girl & the Goat, it’s the veggie dishes, er, hogging the attention. And that’s just the beginning. From The New York Times covering rustic-Italian Balena’s mushroom bruschetta to the nine-course vegetable tasting menu at new standout Grace, veggies have recently received a major status upgrade, from boring side dish to starring role. Or, as Takito chef David Dworshak puts it, “Vegetables are the new bacon!”

At chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat (809 W. Randolph St., 312.492.6262) putting the spotlight on vegetables was part of the plan from the get-go. “For us, it happened because we decided to make a section just for them on our menu,” says Izard. “The pressure was then on to make the vegetable section as good as the others.” That’s exactly what she and her staff have done with the restaurant’s 10 vegetable dishes, ranging from the signature green beans with a fish sauce vinaigrette to the new wood-grilled broccoli with a smoked blue cheese sauce.

Though she came from “a childhood of trying to feed my dog boiled-to-death Brussels sprouts,” grown-up Izard welcomes vegetables’ new “it” status. That is, when they’re cooked and seasoned properly, and approached with the same attention and care as an entree. Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by customers. “Our vegetable dishes have become some of our most popular,” she says.

At most restaurants, the garde-manger station is the entry-level spot for new kitchen staff. Not so at The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave., 312.464.1744), where the salad and vegetable dish preparation area is “the big boys’ station” says chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. Part of the challenge comes from the high demand for items such as charred cauliflower with toasted breadcrumbs, or salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette, which is the restaurant’s No. 1 selling dish. The other difficulty is striking the delicate balance of flavor, texture, seasoning and acidity to get each dish just right. “With vegetables, we take a less-is-more approach,” says Bannos Jr. “It’s all about asking, ‘How can we make this taste great with the least manipulation of ingredients?’”

As an urban gardener himself it’s no surprise Dworshak’s a “huge pusher” of local vegetables at his Mexican-inspired restaurant Takito (2013 W. Division St., 773.687.9620). “I want to show people what real asparagus, strawberries and tomatoes taste like, versus those found in grocery stores,” he says. “The vast difference between them can open up people’s minds and palates.” Dworshak feels the increased availability of flavorful, locally grown produce has played a major role in the vegetable revolution, as has people becoming more health conscious and aware of where their food comes from.

Dworshak advances his philosophy at Takito with dishes such as Mick Klug asparagus grilled in pork belly pan drippings. Paired with ricotta cheese whipped with a guajillo chile puree, serrano ham and rhubarb kimchee, it’s an eminently memorable creation.

At Pecking Order (4416 N. Clark St., 773.907.9900), chef Kristine Subido taps into her Filipino heritage not only for the garlic-spiked sauce she uses to marinate her chicken but for many of the Uptown restaurant’s sides, too. Her collard greens braised slowly in coconut milk and combined with ginger, applewood-smoked bacon and crispy onions is a take on a traditional Filipino dish. Pair that with garlic fried rice, as many customers do, says Subido, and it’s a meal. For her grilled corn salad made with calamansi mayo, toasted garlic, cilantro and cotija cheese, she takes inspiration from the Mexican street-food snack elote. So what do diners think? “It’s so popular we can’t keep it in,” she says.

Chef Bill Kim at BellyQ (1400 W. Randolph St., 312.563.1010) has had a similar experience with his spinach with dried shrimp and Chinese sausage. “We’re going through about seven cases of baby spinach a day,” he says. For this wallet-friendly hybrid of clams casino and oysters Rockefeller, Kim gives the dish a creamy texture by combining coconut milk with garlic-braised spinach. It gets an additional flavor boost from cold quinoa spiked with lemongrass, fish sauce and lime juice. Crispy nubs of Chinese sausage add another layer of texture.

The way chef Jared Wentworth of Longman & Eagle (2657 N. Kedzie Ave., 773.276.7110) sees it, the trend of more vegetable-focused dishes happened gradually over the last 10 years. “It’s evolved from chefs swearing under their breath that there’s a vegetarian in the house to realizing it’s in our best interest to offer them the same caliber of dining,” he says. His slow-roasted cauliflower with beluga lentils, caramelized onions, golden raisins, pickled mango and cucumber raita racks up some 40 orders a night.

When conceiving vegetable dishes, Wentworth approaches them the same way he does all of his creations. “I look for density and fat and then I surround that with pickled, sweet and spicy flavors,” he says. “I want something that’s complex, so that when you eat a plate of it, it’s dinner.”

It may have been his nose-to-tail menu mentality at The Bristol (2152 N. Damen Ave., 773.862.5555) that first got diners’ tongues wagging, but chef Chris Pandel quickly proved he’s just as talented with vegetables. His grilled summer squash with Marcona almonds, stewed onions and “a boatload of spices” has returned as a seasonal special for five years running. It’s a similar story over at Balena (1633 N. Halsted St., 312.867.3888), where his now famous mushroom bruschetta has earned plenty of fans. “Vegetable dishes to me are just as delicious but can be more challenging to make because you’re not focused on a protein,” he says.

Izard agrees. “Anybody can grill a steak and it’ll taste like a delicious steak,” she says. “The challenge of making vegetables taste good, and making them intriguing to people, is more fun.”