Karyn's on Green
Karyn Calabrese makes vegan food date-worthy.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the hostess at Karyn’s, gesturing discreetly to my lazy Saturday outfit. “I didn’t know this place was so…fancy.”
She seemed unfazed. She knew my type. I’d known vegan food was in store, and my head had clouded with images of grungy coffeehouses, disaffected servers, cracked walls covered in poorly hung art. What I never expected to see was one of the most gorgeous restaurants to open in Chicago in recent memory, its high-ceilinged dining room and lofted second-story lounge flush with natural light during the day and glowing an earthy, golden hue at night.
Complementing the setting, there’s an extensive cocktail list (divided by century) and collection of about 40 well-priced sustainable wines, nearly all of which are available by the glass. While the owner, Karyn Calabrese (Karyn’s Raw, Karyn’s Cooked), doesn’t drink alcohol, her touch is evident in the cocktails: Magically, the Corpse Reviver #2 (19th c.) and the Southside (20th c.) manage to be both well-balanced and packed with so much fresh citrus I pretty much convinced myself they were healthy.
But the menu—chicken legs, shepherd’s pie, poached haddock—was so far from what I expected, for a second I wondered whether I was in the right place. The servers quickly instructed me that all those meats are “faux.” And no matter how alluring the room is or how refreshing the drinks are, I’m going to have to leave those faux meats to the die-hards: There’s just no way those “chicken” legs (whose squishy texture I regrettably have to liken to that of gefilte fish) could romance a meat eater.
Steering clear of imitation meats, though, I rarely felt as though something were “missing.” The beets are beautiful (even if a few were overcooked): A balancing act of reds, goldens and candy-striped Chioggias plays off orbs of apple and a few sprigs of dill. The oversize brussels sprouts, nicely caramelized, arrive in a subtly tangy vinaigrette. Proving that vegetables need not feel ascetic, there is eggplant “cannelloni,” its fatty richness (yes, this is a vegan dish I’m talking about) cut through with an olive salsa. And as for zucchini, it’s transformed into thin, hearty strands of “pasta.”
Moving beyond straight-up vegetables is riskier. Taking the chance paid off handsomely in the arugula pizza: several crispy-edged tortillas topped with slim layers of caramelized onion and potato. But if Calabrese’s looking to take me over to the other side, she wasn’t helping her cause with supersweet, dense corn bread, nor with leek-potato soup that coated my tongue with an unpleasant film, and definitely not with sprouts and avocado wrapped in a tough wheat tortilla. As I bit into that “wrap,” I recalled that cloud of vegan memories (the seitan! the weird music!). And dessert I found altogether elusive: Aside from the sorbets (raspberry with the chocolate “terrine,” golden-raisin atop the carrot cake), these mostly tasted like dried-out diet cakes. But by this far into the meal, Calabrese had already gotten the best of me: I took a heaping gulp of my alcohol-free Clip On “elixir”—a drink so punchy it threatened to knock out those granola vibes once and for all.