Friday, November 11, 2011

Meet the Flexitarian: The Growth of the Veggie Market

A matter of only a few years ago, the term “vegetarian” often raised eyebrows and was certainly not on the tip of any new restaurant owner’s tongue. However, the recent rise of environmental awareness and health-conscious dining has elevated vegetarianism from taboo to buzzword. Nowadays, with recent studies showing that 3.2 percent of U.S. adults (amounting to 7.3 million people) follow a vegetarian-based diet and that a far greater number are looking to embrace the trend, the inclusion of vegetarian options in a restaurant menu is not only recommended, but increasingly necessary.

Restaurant owners can unwittingly shut out an entire growing demographic of potential diners by ignoring the rising number of vegetarians. Recent trends in the food industry have seen a backlash against what has been referred to as “meat mania”—restaurants such as KFC offering their notorious “Double Down” sandwich, which features a bacon-and-cheese center with two pieces of fried chicken acting as “buns” and rings in at 32 g of fat. Instead, according to a recent USA Today survey, “some 47 percent of Americans are trying to reduce meat consumption” and restaurants are feeling the push. The Subway sandwich chain outlet recently overtook the McDonalds behemoth on total amount of stores open worldwide—33,749 compared to 32,737 at the end of 2010—and their easily-customizable vegetarian options are partly to thank.

Many other chain restaurants are providing more vegetarian-friendly options, including fast-food chain Burger King, who offer a soy-based vegetarian patty alternative to their normal hamburgers. Chipotle, a booming company known for their innovative approach to fast food, boasts a “food with integrity” take on the industry by focusing on sustainable meats and local, organic produce—not to mention hearty, satisfying vegetarian options that even omnivores can find appealing. Flat Top Grill, a “create-your-own-stirfry” concept chain based in Chicago, IL, offers an extensive host of meat substitutes ranging from mushroom meat to wheat meat to soy proteins along with their selection of traditional meats. These emerging trends show that the “ick” factor previously associated with meat substitute products is quickly dissipating as these substitutes start to look, feel, and taste more like real meat.

The “Meatless Monday” initiative by the U.S. Food Administration, originally started in the midst of World War I and recreated in 2003 as public health awareness program, has gathered a huge following of so-called “flexitarians”—people who cut back on meat on a regular basis but do not identify as full vegetarians. This alternative option, which provides a step back from the cut-and-dry categories that can intimidate some meat eaters, has been named one of the top marketing trends for 2011 by USA Today, and the Hospitality World Network. The market is only growing, with customers becoming more receptive to meat substitutes and veggie-based entrées. Restaurants who heed the vegetarian movement will be a step ahead, as the search for healthy and environmentally-conscious alternatives broadens and grows.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hoo-rah! Native Foods Cafe hits Chicago

Native Foods Cafe, Wicker Park - (c) Native Foods Cafe

Hello, Chicago Veg'Heads! However you happened upon this site-- whether it be morbid curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, or a happy accident-- welcome! I've created this blog as a means to compile an up-to-date and helpful database of vegetarian/vegan resources within the city of Chicago (and surrounding areas, if I ever make it outside of my college-kid budget bubble).

It's also a personal project to document my journey through vegetarianism-- a lifestyle change that is relatively recent for me (I've restricted my meat consumption to seafood since roughly a year ago). However, since making the change, I've never once looked back. In fact, I can safely say that going vegetarian (technically "pescetarian," but working towards the former) has opened my mind to the exciting variety and creativity of the vegetarian culinary world.

With that, I bring-- with a heralding of trumpets (or at least the overjoyed cheering of veggie Chicagoans everywhere)-- the news of Native Foods Cafe opening its doors in Chicago! Set to launch a total of three locations (with the first one already open in the Wicker Park area), Native Foods offers an exclusively vegan menu with options such as the "Super Italian Meatball Sub" and the "Chicago Dip Au Jus." They also offer a range of vegan desserts, including cupcakes and pies. Its laid-back, casual dining design-- customers place their orders at the front counter and wait for food to be brought out to them-- place it up there with Panera Bread in terms of ease and affordability. What couldn't be wonderful about this place??

Super Italian Meatball Sub- (c) Native Foods Cafe

I recently went out to eat at Native Foods with a couple of veggie friends, and our level of anticipation on the bus ride there ranked up with the giddiness of a couple of kids headed to Disney World. Nothing will make a bunch of veggies more excited than the prospect of eating some good, hearty vegetarian "meat"-- choruses of "Man, I need a good veggie bacon cheeseburger" resounded across the board. I won't pretend that I don't on occasion miss the sensation of sinking my teeth into layers of tender, yielding meat; but it's a good kind of missing-- like reminiscing of an ex-boyfriend, with the bemusing knowledge that things wouldn't have worked out anyways.

The line snaking through Native Foods was long. Long, and slow-moving-- the staff at the register were definitely still learning the ropes. However, we were presented with free drink samples (Watermelon Fresca and Lavender Lemonade) and given the chance to ask questions to servers along the line. The atmosphere was very friendly and welcoming, with large-scale artwork spanning the walls and vegan recipes provided at the tables. I ordered the Meatball Sub-- after receiving the recommendation of one of the waitstaff, there was no looking back-- and my friends ordered the Baja Surf Taco and the Chicken Run Ranch Burger. Orders of the Chocolate Love Pie, Peanut Butter Parfait and Strawberry Shortcake Parfait were also in the mix. Native Foods offers a nifty promotion wherein, upon signing up for the Native Foods Rewards Card, guests receive a free first-time drink order-- so I got some of the lemonade.

Our orders were brought out shortly. Our table oooh'ed and ahhh'ed over our respective dishes, and then rotated to give everyone a taste of each-- and we could not stop raving! My order, the meatball sub, was presented on a crispy baguette and loaded with hearty, spicy, meaty seitan meatballs. The marinara sauce was abundant without getting the bread soggy. My only complaint was the meager side-- a couple of limp, sad-looking soybean pods strewn across the side of the plate. The plating of my friends' orders were more thoughtful in their presentation; but taste is always #1 in my book, and in that regard I was not disappointed. It was also immensely filling-- I saved my dessert to eat the next day (excepting the nibbles that occurred while waiting for our entrees). The peanut butter parfait, upon consumption was good-- but somewhat sub par in comparison to the rest of the meal. Perhaps it's because I'm used to dairy in desserts, and could taste something a bit "off" about the lack of the former, but I was pleased overall.

The "native chicken" was almost eerily similar to chicken in texture and taste (but deliciously so), and the battered fish tacos were a success even to me (a fervent fish-eater). All three of us went home clutching our stomachs in weary elation-- it was hard to stop eating! Sometimes I can think of nothing more desirable than making like a cow and having multiple stomachs. The Native Foods experience lived up to expectations, and more. It'll be interesting to see what type of crowds it draws out over time-- is there a market for carnivores in a vegan restaurant? I would certainly hope that they would be willing to give it a try. It's positively worth it.

Native Foods Cafe
Service: 3/5 (can't wait til that line becomes more streamlined!)
Taste: 4.5/5
Veggie-friendliness: 5/5
1484 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois - Wicker Park location

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kendall College Dining Room: Review

The experience to be had at the Kendall College Dining Room can be likened to that of going to see a symphony performance. Upon entering, the atmosphere is dark and plush and the air is alive with a certain thinly-concealed buzzing. A host whisked by to attend to our party at the entrance of the restaurant, offering eagerly to take our coats. The service was carefully orchestrated, and the food itself was a sort of climbing progression, with each dish building off the success and failures of the last. As with the symphony, occasional moments gave way to a certain lull; a momentary lapse of interest during the (extended) wait between courses—only to be renewed once the next course was swept in front of you. However, the experience was an overall pleasant one, with a highlight on the creativity and seasonality of the dishes.

The restaurant itself, located inside the campus of Kendall College—a prestigious culinary academy located in the heart of Chicago—seems to have a difficult time shaking off a certain air of feigned elegance. In such stark contrast to the bright colors and warm lighting of the rest of the campus, the dim, polished atmosphere seems a bit put on. The Dining Room, also offering a full bar, serves both lunch and dinner on both a prix fixe and à la carte basis. The ample menu features seasonal dishes that are rotated often, with many ingredients grown right in the campus’ very own student-maintained garden. One of the main features of the space, and one of the most memorable aspects of the experience, was the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows offering a glimpse of the men (and women) behind the curtain: the kitchens are made fully visible to curious diners, who are given a rare peek into the tightly organized (or, sometimes, not) workings of a professional kitchen.

The prix fixe menu allows diners to choose one appetizer, one entrée and one dessert (or two entrées in the place of a dessert) for under $20 at lunch and under $30 at dinner. On the Tuesday night that we dined, there was also a half-off deal on wine bottles. The appetizers that were brought to our table varied noticeably in size: the Jersey milk ricotta gnudi (described to us by the server as “pasta-less ravioli”) consisted of only three snug little balls in a deep bowl, while the roasted market beet salad with ladyfinger popcorn arrived on a dish that nearly spanned the entire length of one side of the table. However, the small portion size of the gnudi and its brown butter-truffle sauce helped to keep its deep richness from overwhelming. The garnish—delicate, crisp pieces of fried sage—broke up the creaminess of the dish in a welcome gesture. The beet salad was a more entertaining experience, with unexpected bursts of earthy popcorn complimenting the tartness of the beets.

The entrée course brought more surprises, but hit slightly lower notes. The smoked tofu with black kale and white beans was sweet and lush in flavor, with a sharp tomato purée adding some spark to the dish. However, it was a dish that began to underwhelm as it progressed, with the tofu growing one-note in flavor and increasingly tough in some areas. The pan-seared arctic char also had an implacable “fishiness” to it, with its plating lacking a little in thought: the whipped mashed potatoes had cooled considerably upon reaching the table, as they were spread in a sweeping line over the surface of the plate. However, dessert was not to disappoint. Pleasantly simple in both its design and presentation, the cocoa chestnut crêpe dish was a perfect ending crescendo: one crêpe filled with chestnut cremeux, the other with a housemade ricotta cheese; they complimented and contrasted each other beautifully. Other desserts included an extravagantly-colored chocolate beet cake and an expansive “study of apples,” including a mulled apple cider frappe, apple fritter, and candy apple.

The Kendall Dining Room certainly has a lot to offer, and returning guests will be kept entertained by its clever and evolving menu. Although not all symphonies can be executed perfectly, the value of the performance lies in how much heart is put into it—and if food can abide by the same rules, then the Kendall Dining Room is most certainly worth a visit.

Kendall Dining Room
Service: 3/5 (Students serve, so there are some hits and some misses)
Taste: 4/5 (Especially great considering the low-ish price!)
Veggie-friendliness: 2/5 (Usually only a few vegetarian options per course...but there's always at least one)

The Kendall Dining Room is open for lunch Monday-Friday from 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm; and for dinner Tuesday through Friday from 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm and Saturdays 6:00 - 8:00 pm.

It is located at 900 N.North Branch Street, Chicago, IL 60642.

Reservations can be made at 312.752.2328 or online.

Dress code is business casual.