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I ate my way through Chicago with a gluten-avoiding vegetarian (and it was awesome)

pane Aug 20, 2012 05:40 PM

Last weekend I visited a friend who is a lifelong vegetarian and now mostly avoids gluten. Restaurant-wise, I thought this might be a disaster. Instead, with some brief meat breaks and explorations of sausage palaces, it was amazing. Our overall dining strategy was to pick places that were vegetarian friendly so that my friend wasn't stuck ordering the single, charmless available dish or asking for substitutions, which isn't fun.

Day 1:
Blackbird. I ate alone while my friend was at work. The pork belly with pickles was one of the best sandwiches I've had in my life. They had a $22 three-course lunch deal, but I'd heard from a Blackbird fan that the pork belly was the way to go and it wasn't on the prix fixe, so I ordered a la carte instead. The sandwich: grilled bread, homemade slaw, just enough and not too much pork belly, pickles. Considering the richness of the ingredients, it's a shocker this wasn't heavy, but the char of the bread and vinegary pickle balanced the slaw and meat. Broccoli soup was also fantastic--rich without any heaviness. The fries were a bit too stringy, so I left them, but it was a ton of food anyhow, so all the better.

Uru-Swati. A vegetarian Indian restaurant on Devon. The luxury of too many good choices! The masala dosa was twice and width of my arm; when we saw another table get it, I thought for sure we'd finish only a third. Instead we tore into it with the vigor of a starved cheetah attacking a lame antelope, and there remained only dust. Potatoes were fluffy and well seasoned. We had another three dishes that were all good to great, but the masala dosa was the winner.

The Barrelhouse Flats for cocktails. Remarkable. Impressive selection of classics plus custom drinks by their bartenders, this managed to stick the landing with a drink list that was comprehensive but not overwhelmingly encyclopedic. I loved the tart, bright "Cumulonimbus."

Day 2:
Gene's Sausage. Another winner. I had a snack sausage that I brought back home (after eating half) and plum, kraut and cheese pierogis that I fried in butter back home. Great snap on the snack sausage. The pierogi skins were a little thick for my taste, but good for pre-made deli versions.

Black Dog gelato. Cantaloupe sorbet was perfect. Other favorites: chocolate malted and oreo mint. Very friendly and gave me a sample of every flavor.

Handlebar. Plenty of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices here. I enjoyed the "Everything Green" salad with avocado, pistachio, edamame and green goddess dressing. As a bridge-building attempt, I ordered "fried chicken" seitan, but had to retreat on that one. If you haven't eaten fried chicken in 20 years, it's maybe what you imagine fried chicken to taste like; if you are like me, it was a mess of gnarled dry bits that is what I imagine people will eat in space in the year 3000. Not good, but salad was great!

Piece. Embracing the sole break in the gluten embargo, we went to Piece for dinner with a group of friends. I grew up near the New Haven pizza powerhouses and was impressed by the pies here, though the crust didn't have the depth and spark of the coal-fired brick ovens versions back home. Lots of interesting beer choices; my friends went for the in-house brews and I had a sour Bells that I liked. Also tried banana peppers for the first time in my life, and liked punchy sour pickledness on top of melted cheese.

Day 3:
I made two donut stops: a lemon donut at Glazed (a little take-out window we passed on a walk) and a date donut at Caffe Streets in Wicker Park. I preferred the lighter and more subtle date donut over Glazed, which had the weight of a hockey puck. Nice brightness to the lemon donut, but a little overwhelming, like eating a can of frosting.