Long gone are the days when Chicago was lumped into the Midwestern meat and potatoes stereotype. The city’s dynamic dining scene is now among the best in the country, with an abundance of restaurants and dishes that couldn’t be further from these old-school basics. The city’s vegetarian offerings are a prime example — unique and downright sexy. These are the best of the bunch.
Pan con tomate at Income Tax
Drawing inspiration from Germany, Spain and France, Edgewater’s Income Tax breathes fresh life into vegetable-focused fare that pairs well with wine. As beautiful as it is delicious, the Spanish-accented pan con tomate riffs on the traditional sherry-friendly bread with chopped tomatoes by featuring a house-baked saffron bread and using seed-filled tomato morsels to create a gel with tomato water and garlic. It packs a punch of tomato flavor and gorgeous color.
5959 N. Broadway St.; 773-897-9165
Chaufa at Tanta
This Peruvian hot spot has a knack for sex appeal. Inspired by the country's own diversity, with influences from China, Japan and beyond, the restaurant brings a miscellany of exotic dishes to its menu. A prime meat-free example is vegetarian chaufa, a traditional fried rice dish, here made with wok-fried quinoa, bell peppers, mushrooms, bean sprouts, soy sauce, sesame oil and scallions. It’s as hearty and rich as any of Tanta’s meatier items.
118 W. Grand Ave.; 312-222-9700
Spaetzle and pickles at Bohemian House
When people think of Eastern European cuisines, meaty dishes like goulashes and schnitzel come to mind. Defying the norm, Bohemian House shines the spotlight on vegetables with items like mushroom spaetzle — egg noodles served with crispy hen of the woods mushrooms, kabocha squash and chestnuts. Then there’s pickled vegetables, a snack that's more layered than its simple name suggests. A rainbow of seasonal vegetables, like carrots and beets, share space atop toasted rye bread with preserved tomato and goat feta cheese.
11 W. Illinois St.; 312-955-0439
Toast at Baker Miller
As humble as it sounds, toast gets a sexy upgrade at Baker Miller, thanks to the cafe’s commitment to milling its own grains and lining its shelves with warm, freshly baked creations. Chief among them is the housemade sunflower bread that gets layered with mashed avocado, pickled jicama, strawberries, honey and cilantro. Considering half of these ingredients are aphrodisiacs, and the dish is as colorful as a pane of stained glass, this is one sexy toast.
4610 N. Western Ave.; 773-654-3610
Pea soup at South Water Kitchen
Soup gets colorful at South Water Kitchen, thanks to chef Roger Waysok’s affinity for textural and flavor balance, not to mention an artistlike eye for color. One of his latest seasonal creations is a silky-smooth spring pea soup enriched with coconut milk and flecked with shiitake mushrooms for a bit of umami contrast to the peas’ innate sweetness.
225 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-236-9300
Cauliflower steak at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Although “vegetables” is missing from Joe’s title, this River North crowd-pleaser is as handy with produce as it is with meat and seafood. One recent example is the roasted cauliflower steak, an herb-marinated and chargrilled hunk of cauliflower with a verdant arugula-herb pistou, shaved fennel and sliced Pink Lady apples. It’s at once pungent, savory, peppery and sweet, and it's finished off with a splash of lemon olive oil.
60 E. Grand Ave.; 312-379-5637
Pea tartlet at Beacon Tavern
There are few dishes prettier than the pea tartlet at Beacon Tavern. Resembling a bouquet of flowers, the plate features a delicate, buttery pastry crust heaped with sweet green peas, fresh mint and seasonal baby vegetables. A poached egg nestled on top adds richness and glazes the vegetables.
405 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-955-4226
Veggie grill feast at bellyQ
Just in time for grilling season, bellyQ has rolled out a Meatless Mondays menu centered around its built-in grill tables. Aptly dubbed the veggie grill feast, it's part of a four-course spread of seasonal eats that showcases the versatility of vegetables. As an interactive bonus, guests get to try their hand at grilling. Items include sweet potatoes, Korean BBQ–marinated king oyster mushrooms, asparagus, Chinese eggplant and bok choy. There are also sides like sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, kimchi and green papaya, along with lettuces like Belgium endive and sesame leaves. Each feast ends with donuts with chocolate and peanut butter spread.
1400 W. Randolph St.; 312-563-1010
Whipped feta at Ēma
Feta at Ēma is drop-dead gorgeous, thanks to its silky texture and striking accompaniments. Crispy socca, a thin, crunchy Mediterranean pancake, is nestled in the middle of the feta, along with tangy marinated olives and a zesty pat of salsa fresca.
74 W. Illinois St.; 312-527-5586
Crostini at 312 Chicago
Italian crostini is inherently luscious, especially when it features house-baked and grilled garlic focaccia topped with baby heirloom tomatoes, fresh burrata, basil and organic olive oil. As the weather continues to warm, chef Luca Corazzina will begin sourcing herbs and tomatoes from his rooftop garden.
136 N. LaSalle St.; 312-696-2420
Cauliflower burrito at Half Acre
Burritos can be sexy, especially when they're the handiwork of chef Nick Lacasse, who presides over some of the best versions in town at Half Acre Beer Company in North Center. Among the inventive options are a grilled cauliflower burrito, featuring a hearty blend of fresh grilled vegetables in a Mediterranean style — big chunks of herb vinaigrette-marinated cauliflower, feta mousse, fresh fennel, tomatoes, arugula and tapenade. It's also available as a bowl, sans wrap.
4257 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-4038
Gnocchi at RPM Italian
One way to give gnocchi some sex appeal is to make it greener than a salad. At RPM Italian, that green hue comes from ramp pesto, the most sought-after seasonal ingredient. It's draped over pillowy-soft potato dumplings and finished with a generous portion of aged goat cheese for added creaminess.
52 W. Illinois St.; 312-222-1888
Bombo rice at La Sirena Clandestina
At La Sirena Clandestina, rice serves as a tasty blank canvas for seasonal creativity. Courtesy of chef de cuisine Eric Michael, late-spring staples lend luster to a bowl of bomba rice, with roasted artichokes, ramps, asparagus, wild mushrooms and English peas. It's basically a big, beautiful bowl of spring, topped off with ramp granola and a slow-cooked egg, because runny eggs are always a sexy addition.
954 W. Fulton Market; 312-226-5300
Asparagus at Smyth
A recent newcomer to Smyth's tasting menu is an asparagus dish that's as pretty as a pasture filled with flowers. The caramelized spring asparagus is enrobed in lilacs and green pine cones, which both lend aroma and flavors reminiscent of a pastoral woodland stroll. There's also housemade cottage cheese, and it's finished with a glaze of honey.
177 N. Ada St.; 773-913-3773
Barbecue carrots at The Publican
A standout vegetable dish at Fulton Market's grandiose gastronomic temple, The Publican, this vibrant dish features bright orange carrots imbued with a smoky char and flecked with dill, pecans and creamy herb dressing. It's as complex and toothsome as it is eye-popping.
837 W. Fulton Market; 312-733-9555