| Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: an ethnic guide to vegging out 

Decades of scientific research now confirm that mom was absolutely right: vegetables really are good for you. They play a key role in warding off killers such as heart and arterial disease, many forms of cancer, plus dozens of other ailments--to say nothing of their ability to slow down the aging process.

"Aging is the primary health threat after age 28," says Jean Carper, columnist and author of The Food Pharmacy, who calls antioxidants--along with fiber the essential components that make veggies so important--the "long sought-after youth potions." She recommends a cocktail of antioxidant vitamins and minerals if your diet lacks these good things--as most do.

Hall Laboratories has actually come up with a line of "phytochemical" pills that purport to encapsulate the chief nutrients in foods such as broccoli, garlic, spinach, and tomatoes. But Consumer Reports on Health newsletter says no one can truthfully claim to have distilled the essence of broccoli down to just the two chemicals in the broccoli pill: "It will still take fruits and vegetables to do the job. That's because the maximum benefit from produce may depend on interactions between various nutrients that occur in natural combinations in a produce-rich diet."

Thus logic says we should have a lot of vegetarian meals even if we don't turn into outright vegans. But how can we carnivores be happy on such a diet? Frankly, the strictly veggie stuff I've had at Jane's and other vegetarian restaurants hasn't been very stimulating or satisfying. Yes, Charlie Trotter's has a superb vegetarian tasting menu, but it runs $70.

I found the answer in ethnic restaurants. You would expect Indian and Chinese cooks to do great meatless things, but I was taken aback to learn there is now an Italian restaurant specializing in vegetarian dishes. When I arrived at Piatto Verde (334 W. Chicago, 335-3739) with an intrepid band of carnivores I was given a brief history of vegetarianism in Italy. The diet of the ancient Roman peasant was basically broth, pasta, vegetables, beans, and fruit; the Renaissance saw a renaissance of vegetarianism led by folks such as Leonardo da Vinci.

Piatto Verde has nearly three dozen flavorful and filling vegetarian dishes--antipasti, salads, pastas, main courses, and sides--plus some meat and seafood items. The starters included a fine batch of grilled vegetables with balsamic vinegar sauce ($5.75), a lovely terrine of layered carrot, spinach, and cauliflower sparked by a tomato-basil coulis ($6), and zesty sauteed black-bean dumplings backed up with a shallot marmalade ($5.75).

The most distinctive pasta was herbed sweet-potato gnocchi with caramelized onion in a vegetable broth ($9.50)--and I generally hate sweet potatoes with the passion George Bush reserved for broccoli. There's much to be said, too, for the risotto with porcini mushrooms and asparagus ($11.50). As an entree, the "mille foglie au funghi"--layered Portobello mushrooms, spinach, and mozzarella in mushroom wine sauce--made no effort to impersonate meat but would leave any steak eater purring ($10).

My favorite Indian restaurant, Gandhi (2601 W. Devon, 761-8714), has 16 vegetarian specialties plus some appetizers and pilafs, but in all the years I've been going there I've only sampled a few. This visit we worked our way through more than half the meatless menu.

The saag paneer ($4.95), a mix of spiced spinach and white cheese, is always a treat, as is the bharta, a richly spiced, chunky eggplant puree ($4.95). The pleasant surprise, however, was masala dosa, a large, slightly crisp, folded crepe filled with potatoes, onions, nuts, and a modestly spicy sauce ($3.95). Creamed lentils with a butter finish had yet another distinctive flavor ($4.75), as did the more highly spiced chickpeas with tomato ($4.75). (Gandhi will moderate the heat of any dish upon request.)

We also had a sprightly curry of a half dozen veggies in the chef's "masala" or personal cooking base ($5.25), though I preferred the okra, or "bhindi," in masala ($4.95). Sated after a meal that also included several wonderful Indian breads, one well-traveled, otherwise nonvegetarian companion pronounced the dinner "the best Indian meal of any kind I ever ate."

When Alfred Hsu was running Szechwan House on Michigan Avenue, he offered a special vegetarian menu for a while but discontinued it when it didn't prove popular. Now that his old building has been demolished, he's moved a few blocks east to open a place called, appropriately enough, Szechwan East (340 E. Ohio, 255-9200). In addition to the three or four veggie items on his daily luncheon buffet and many others interspersed throughout his standard menu, he again offers a vegetarian card on request to committed vegetable eaters.

From the regular menu immediate winners were the scallion pancake appetizer ($4.95), an agreeable mix of crunch and sweet-spice seasoning, and mu shu vegetables ($9.95) so beautifully seasoned and textured not a soul missed the pork. Another full-bodied item, which they sometimes call "mock chicken," consists of tofu sheets tightly rolled with Asian mushrooms and bathed in an aromatic five-spice sauce strongly redolent of anise ($5.50). The vegetable tempura ($4.95) came with good dipping sauces but was otherwise uninteresting.

Eggplant slices stir-fried in a hot chili and garlic sauce ($8.95) are about as meaty--and spicy--as you could want. Equally meaty, if that's a positive word, but more lushly seasoned is the "festival" of mushrooms: five varieties in a gleaming brown sauce atop a bed of crisp noodles ($8.95). Under no circumstances, meatless or otherwise, should you miss the amazing garlic spinach ($8.95).

Finally, Hsu showed us how spicy-hot Szechwan string beans ($8.95), a favorite side dish that's usually seasoned with crisp-fried flakes of pork, is made into a vegetarian hit: the chef skips the pork and adds minced, highly spiced preserved Szechwan vegetable. All eight of us agreed we didn't miss the meat at all. Now maybe we'll live a few days longer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.

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