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Wednesday, December 7

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Feature Fri Feb 01 2008

No Restrictions

Article by Chris Brunn.

Good restaurants should be able to take care of you. Even us vegans. Some chefs have told me that they enjoy a challenge. If you have dietary restrictions, you shouldn't have to limit yourself to places that cater specifically to you. In other words, vegans shouldn't be stuck going to just the places that call out items as "vegan" on their menus. With sufficient notice &mdash sometimes a day, other times a week &mdash upscale spots should be able to make something really special.

Friends and I were searching a restaurant for a special dinner for my sweetie's birthday. Our criteria: upscale and elegant with great service, ten minutes by taxi cab to Redmoon (1463 W. Hubbard) for a show after dinner, availability for ten at 6 p.m. on a Friday night ten days out and more than willing to serve at least two of us an all vegan dinner and everyone else all vegetarian without egg.

I looked through previous reviews I'd written, dug in my mind and notes for places I'd wanted to try, and searched for vegan restaurants online. The latter didn't yield many of the white tablecloth type places, but instead more predictably turned up relaxed spots like Handlebar, Earwax and Atomix. The Peninsula Hotel turned up on for their vegan tea service (24 hours advance notice), but that wouldn't be dinner. One friend told me that she'd called Green Zebra, an obvious choice since they're well known for celebrating vegetables, but they didn't have room unless we wanted to pay a great sum for their upstairs room. Opera in the South Loop &mdash with a vegan-specific menu aside a non-veg menu with ribs, pork, shrimp and lobster &mdash is fancy in a bright and playful sort of way. My lady had been there before, and we wanted a new spot. Tizi Melloul had a chermoula grilled tofu that I'd loved. Their interior is swanky in the sort of way you might imagine some nice restaurant to appear in The Jetsons if The Jetsons were set in Morocco, but they were closed that night. Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo felt like options, too, but Topo only took reservations for up to eight and Frontera didn't have any more reservations ten days before (it'd be first come first serve).

I remembered people talking about May Street Market (1132 W. Grand Avenue) and Crofton on Wells (535 N. Wells). The seemed like good options right away. May Street Market offered a prix fix vegetarian menu in addition to their meaty one. Crofton had a vegetarian menu section, and their online menu called out to "please note that we will work with you to create a meal that is within your boundaries be it vegan, lacto-ovo, etc. please advise your server." I called both. Crofton confirmed vegan was no problem at all. Speaking of the four options on their vegetarian menu, "We can do anything vegan," the person on the phone told me. May Street Market seemed totally into a custom menu for us. Michelle, who answered the phone when I first called their main number, had checked with the chef. With one week's notice, they could make us a complete vegan menu.

Our group opted for May Street Market, and I called to reserve a spot for seven of us, our final count. Usually their five courses go for $70 and eight courses cost $95. We wanted $50 per person for whatever that would buy, and the person on the phone said the chef would work within our range. It'd likely be three or four courses, depending on ingredients. He finished saying that I'd probably get a call back from one of the principals with menu suggestions, and that the chef would take thirty minutes or so to plan something out.

I got a call the next day asking me to block out some time to call chef Alex Cheswick. They were going to do a fixed vegan and fixed vegetarian (no egg) menu for us. We would have custom menus printed for our table. And we would have some flexibility the day of. He mentioned guests being able to choose which option they want at the table, or substitute from something else from the regular menu's a la carte options. I thought it'd be fairer to give the restaurant a count before, and they seemed to appreciate that.

I reviewed what we wanted with Mr. Cheswick, and he was going to totally hook us up. With permission to bring in a cake, I would go up to get my sweetie's favorite, the vegan peanut butter chocolate from Blind Faith Café in Evanston. He suggested we arrive at 5:45 p.m. in order to get seated by 6 p.m. and out by 7:30 p.m. I was to get back to him with the custom text we'd wanted on the menu. I followed up with the message: "Sara's 2nd Annual 29th Birthday Celebration." I called Blind Faith to confirm the cake order I'd put in days before.

The crew at May Street Market gave us a spectacular show with incredibly attentive service all the way through. The greeter took our coats, took the cake and candles, and asked for instructions. My friend Rose asked her to chill it and take it out 30 minutes before serving. My sweetie and others rolled in shortly after. Most of us were sitting, with custom menus printed with my lady's name in hand. Everyone had the same menu, all vegan. I suppose it was easier that way for the kitchen. We'd been there 30 minutes and one of us still hadn't arrived. Our server asked if we wanted to get started, so we wouldn't have to rush through later to get out in time for our show. She said they'd catch our straggler up, which they did without me even noticing.

First came the taffy apple. I could smell the smoking apple wood log come towards the table. A little hole drilled down inside it held the stick for each taffy apple - each tiny as if a sampling cut from a regular sized apple, "with fleur de sel" our menus told us.

Second came red beet raviolis, "with black truffle salsify, fennel emulsion, and kumquat relish." The kitchen had really given us a treat this time. Some of us wondered if they'd gone an extra level and made this raw, too, but we didn't ask. We just kept enjoying our tasting. I remember thin red slices of the beet as the ravioli casing. They were firm but knew when to give way to easily chew through.

Third course: "hen of the wood mushrooms stuffed with crispy tofu, smoked shitakes, [V]ietnamese mint and arugula." Thinking back weeks later, I remember tiny blocks of tofu that seemed stacked together, with shitakes in the center, and then breaded and all fried crispy. I don't know how the tofu blocks stuck together like Legos; I'm still in amazement.

The fourth course completed the menu quite well, filling me up with quinoa salad tucked into rolled up balls of Napa cabbage. Chestnut purée, dried fruits and aged balsamic were all part of the fun.

Fantastic taste brought amazing service. Many expediters came to our table to deliver courses at the same time. The cake came out sparkling with candles. Wish made, cake sliced, served, and mostly eaten, our server suggested she'd bring out the bill in the most considerate way possible. She knew we had asked to get out by 7:30 p.m. to make Redmoon, but also she didn't want to rush us. They retrieved our coats, boxed up cake leftovers, and had their valet flag us two taxicabs.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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