TRAVEL TALES | LA-style raw food in Chicago at Karyn's On Green

EVER BEEN to LA? No? Ever wonder what it’s like in LaLa Land? For a close approximation (if you can’t make it all the way there), Karyn’s on Green in Chicago (I know... bear with me) is hard to beat. At least for an LA-style dining experience (see?). Although, if you ask owner Karyn Calabrese about it, she’ll say that the restaurant is more LA than LA ( “you can’t even find any place like this in LA”.) Which makes me believe that this must be a sort of culinary Shangri-La, at least for vegan types in search of something less Patchouli soaked than the usual offerings.

Somehow, walking into Karyn’s on Green, it feels like this space -- a sort of abattoir for restaurants past -- has finally met its match. The minimalist, low-to-the-ground, Southern California cool is exactly what Karyn’s on Green needs. Vegans from all over Chicago come here. Fans and friends of Karyn’s come here. And, most importantly, food lovers come here.

Not that it's fine dining. It’s somewhere between fine and casual. It’s vegan dining dressed in Preen or Marc by Marc instead of Birkenstock and Kohl’s clearance rack. It’s sexy vegan. It’s a vegan I didn’t know existed. Karyn’s on Green has pulled a Justin Timberlake and brought sexy back (or brought it for the first time, really) to meatless eating.

For a restaurant that’s entirely vegan (even the sliders, fried chicken, crab cakes and salmon), that air of crunchy superiority is markedly absent. Karyn says that there’s no “nazi eating” here. There are no hard and fast rules. She said she’s created food, restaurants and products she wanted and simply wants to share them with the world...

If you’re wondering how a menu that boasts items like fried chicken and sliders can be vegan, it’s all a matter of names, says Karyn, “If you call it wheat gluten and soy, no one will want to eat it”. Very true. While the meat alternatives are obviously not the real deal, for such products they are remarkably good (the skin -- yes, skin -- on the salmon fillet is made from seaweed). But it’s the vegetable options and far-out drinks that make this place a worthy regular stop.

Heirloom tomato salad with basil sorbet ($9) sounds like something off the menu of an experimental British chef, not from a West Loop vegan restaurant. Heirloom beet salad ($6), brussel sprouts with spicy mustard ($6, blanched then caramelized), leafy greens, broccoli rabe, raw red pepper gazpacho ($8) and butternut squash soup ($6) are all as tasty as if they were prepared with lashings of salt and butter. The sweet potato gratin ($7) is spicy and fragrant with clover, and the vegan marshmallows (not easy to make) on top remind me of a (healthier) Thanksgiving dish my grandmother used to make. They’re all so good that you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to enjoy them, as is the case with so many of Karyn’s regulars. Everything’s fresh.

The chorizo sliders ($8) have a great, subtle spice and warm, toasted buns. While you can tell the cheese is vegan, and they’re crumblier than regular sliders, I thought about ordering a second plate after we devoured the first one. Wild mushroom risotto ($9) is so creamy and rich you won’t need a doggy bag because there will simply be nothing left on your plate. The salmon ($15) is decidedly fake but still enjoyable and a fried chicken leg ($14) is strangely good (heavenly BBQ sauce). Karyn says that all fried foods are done with olive oil as it’s the only oil that’s not carcinogenic when heated to a high temperature.

The recipe for the chicken is her own. Looking at the tall, willowy, positively youthful 63 year-old, you’d never guess she would have her own fried chicken recipe. Karyn credits decades of disease-free, energy-packed living with her eating habits and lifestyle. She’s botox-free, surgery-free and looks not a day over 40. I’ll have another helping of her friend chicken, then.

Dessert is tasty although the raw cheesecake tastes of coconut, not cheese and dairy. If you’re new to raw food, this course might be the easiest entry point. All of the food on the menu is labelled so that you know if you’re getting raw (R), Gluten Free (GF) or Soy Free (SF). Or, perhaps begin your raw and vegan adventures with a mocktail from the bar.

Why is there a bar in a vegan restaurant, you ask? Karyn says “because people like to drink!” falling in line with her sentiment that being healthy doesn’t have to be about follow endless, fun-less rules.

Karyn’s on Green is the only restaurant ever where I’ve been able to order a mocktail (alcohol-free delicousness), Kombucha, coconut water and lovely bottle of 2007 Domaine de Triennes Viognier ($39) all in one evening in one place. They also serve an impressive list of classic cocktails and local beers.

If you’re there on a busy night, though, be prepared to use sign language to speak with your dining companions, as the acoustics are pretty abysmal. That aside, there’s nothing wrong with Karyn’s on Green. In fact, it’s all very right. You’ll even leave with a wallet that still has a few bucks in it after a divine three course meal with (several) drinks (our meal was just over $120) that doesn’t leave you feeling so full you’re sick.

I felt downright healthy departing from an evening at Karyn’s on Green, even after half a bottle of wine. And if you happen to overdo it, Karyn will come to your rescue with a shot of digestive enzymes ($2) on the menu to help kick your stomach into gear.

Who needs LA with it’s traffic, strip malls and in-your-face vanity when you can do Karyn’s on Green instead?

Karyn’s on Green, 130 South Green Street, Chicago, IL, (312) 226.6155,
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