Zeal- Food for Enthusiasts, a not-quite one year old establishment, has just fired their second executive chef in ten months. First time restauranteur Wayde Jester has, according to comment from his staff, refused to listen to advice from veterans in the industry and has preferred to run a place where people are fired for not fitting in with the “love will see us through” front of the house philosophy that has formed a cult of sorts in the management.
Front of the house issues have been apparent from the start, which is expected when one has no experience and tries to play restauranteur without listening to and following the advice of industry professionals who have worked hard and done this all before. But, the back of the house was originally staffed with professional chefs with experience at OAK at Fourteenth, L’atelier, Frasca, and Jax, to name a few successful restaurant models here in town.
The most recent shift has brought A Bolder Table to the decision to boycott Zeal. Their executive chef, Sean Smith, had poured everything he had into running that kitchen and was called in for a meeting on his day off to be blind-sided and fired, effective immediately, with no severance, for doing a great job and working incredibly hard, but not leaving the kitchen to socialize with Zeal’s guests. I’m sorry folks, but chefs usually don’t socialize- they run the kitchen and make your dining experience possible with the help of the front of the house staff being there to touch tables and mingle with diners. Wayde Jester fired a chef with no one next in line to be trained in Sean’s duties. He then lied to the staff about the staff change, and is refusing to repay the former chef for out of pocket restaurant expenses incurred while employed. Staff moral is very low and each and every employee has reached out to Sean in tears, outrage, or just plain disbelief.
The “love is all we need” facade will only last so long. Showing zero love to one of the most hard working and important employees of their establishment is the antithesis to who they say they are. A number of employees have been put on probation for “bad attitudes,” a number have quit, and people continue to be fired. There is almost no one present besides the owner who has been there since it opened in December 2013. If you’re in the restaurant industry, you’ll recognize this as a red flag. If you’re not, you can probably see the difficulties ahead for the fledgling establishment, especially in a small town. So, I can no longer support Zeal with compliments and accolades. Instead, I’m eager to see the next place that opens in their current space.
*Disclaimer- Sean Smith is connected to A Bolder Table, so we are not just passionate about the issue, but know all of the unfortunate details.
You walk in to a gourmet fresh produce market with raisins dried on the vine, exotic fruits, fresh vegetables, and a free vegetable butchering service. Turn to the right and approach a coffee bar, then a snack bar, an ice cream shop, chocolate shop, and home goods specialty shop. Head up to the second floor and enter a brewery, winery, olive oil shop, bakery, cooking school, pizzeria, vegetable restaurant, fish market and restaurant, cheese shop, fresh pasta shop, butcher counter, salumi shop… I’m definitely forgetting a number of “shops” under this two-story department store sized restaurant and marketplace. But, hopefully you get my point if you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting EATALY in NYC, Chicago, or any of its other European, Middle Eastern, or Asian locations.
Sean and I did a really quick reconnaissance after enjoying The Publican, and decided to return the next day for lunch.
We chose to dine at the Verduri restaurant, and started with their Bruschetta del Giorno.
And a couple glasses of rosé in EATALY glasses (available for purchase, of course).
Next came the Asparagi dish with a beautifully fried egg on top.
We followed that with Verdure Piastra, which was essentially a big serving of farro topped with roasted veggies.
And chef had to try their Green Pea Farrotto, as he’d just been talking about wanting to put a Farrotto on his own menu at Zeal.
The verdict? The Farrotto, which is essentially a risotto-style dish made with farro rather than rice, seemed to be rapidly prepared rather than slowly cooked the way this labor intensive dish is best made for a creamy, delectable experience. It seemed like pre-cooked farro was added to a pea broth rather than cooked in a broth over a long period of time. But, the flavor was good. The Verdure Piastra was a HUGE portion of food, yet priced the same as the Farrotto. This seemed off to us. And in the end, lunch cost $130 including tax and tip. That’s a pretty expensive lunch!
The Publican is a meat-centric James Beard Award Winning establishment in the meatpacking district of Chicago. Not necessarily a great choice for vegetarians, but absolutely worth a metro ride out to this neighborhood that still clings to it’s meatpacking past of warehouses, wide streets, and the stench of fish from a loading dock floor that maybe wasn’t hosed down too well with bleach the day before.
This is a place that takes itself very seriously, and their attention to detail was impressive. The interior design, service, sourcing of product- every single thing was well done in what I could tell from our hour or so experience sitting in a booth that resembles a hog’s pen, with a chest-high door shutting us in and all. Pig paintings decorate the walls, and they have their own butcher shop across the street: Publican Quality Meats. We definitely weren’t in Boulder…
Like all great places nowadays, local farms are highlighted on their menu so you know exactly where that Little Gem Salad is coming from.
We started off with beverages, of course. (Sean and I can be a couple of one trick ponies)
I tried a cider, and he went for a flight of rosé. When the flight arrived, I asked our server to please place it down for a photo before unstacking the unpretentious wine glasses. For me, this presentation was another nice touch. The Publican has beer glasses to match every beer, but wine, on the other hand, not so much. Rocks glasses for wine, totally rocks.
Not being incredibly hungry, we went with a cheese board and a Werp Farms Little Gem Salad. We had just eaten a Werp Farms Little Gem Salad at the Green Zebra the night before, so we decided to compare…
You can’t even compare the two salads. The Publican fills a plate with Little Gem lettuce, fennel, radish, buttermilk dressing, and fried pig ears (which we got on the side). Green Zebra, unfortunately, skimped out on the little gem lettuce and essentially mis-labeled their dish. But anyway, back to this amazing salad. I had never had pig ears and he insisted I try them, so we got a pile of thinly sliced, fried ears on the side rather than in the salad.
I didn’t like them at all. Sean swore they were amazing, but the flavor wasn’t something I really wanted to linger in my mouth. I’m just not too adventurous about eating animals, that’s all.
But cheese, on the other hand… I could eat cheese all day. Especially when presented like this-
I really wasn’t on my game this particular day after my first night in a new city, where we were up before dawn to fly at 6 am, and learned they have a 4am last call at some bars, so I’ll admit to having no idea what cheeses and accouterments we enjoyed. But, it doesn’t really matter because The Publican is a place that frequently features different cheeses, etc., so whatever you enjoy on your cheese board will be completely different from my mid-July experience. Just know it will be good. Really good. Amazing, I dare say. Go now, Go often.
837 W Fulton Market
Our first night in Chicago was the only night we had dinner reservations. In the weeks before our trip, all of the menus we looked at looked good, but it was clear vegetarian fare was an afterthought of almost every chef in town. I insisted that we dine somewhere Sean could order more than one or two things off of the menu, and he suggested Green Zebra, a restaurant he has a fond memory of visiting in the past with his sister.
Green Zebra is a vegetarian fine dining establishment that’s been open since 2004 and the chef/owner Shawn McClain won a James Beard award in 2006 for Best Chef Midwest. There’s a very calm, clean feel to the place, and we enjoyed a really nice, relaxing dinner.
We started with some drinks, of course. I ordered a Michigan cider, he ordered a glass of bubbly, and then a pint… par for the course.
I’m a huge fan of quality cider, and would LOVE to see even more of it on menus everywhere. When done well, cider isn’t a sickly sweet slightly carbonated beverage. It can be a lower alcohol effervescent refreshing experience. Vander Mill Cider, on the menu at Green Zebra, is a nice, sessionable cider.
Our first dish was a Grilled Werp Farm Gem Salad with breakfast radishes, green almonds, and an onion vinaigrette.
It was delicious. But, we had one tiny little fourth of a head of gem lettuce on our plate, served over arugula, which essentially represented 75% of the greens on the plate. Disappointing at the time, it became a topic of conversation over our similarly priced, yet 100% true to its name, gem salad the following afternoon at The Publican.
Next in line came Hen of the Woods Mushroom Pâté served with rhubarb compote, bread and butter fennel pickles, and bread.
I’m not a fan of pate, so I wasn’t really interested in ordering this, but it turned out quite pleasing. He, on the other hand, really really liked this dish, so I feel comfortable saying this was a successful appetizer.
We decided to order a bottle of wine while enjoying the first two dishes. Then ordered the Burratta all Panna which was one of my favorite cheeses over freekeh tabbouleh, preserved lemon, Calabrian chilies, and grilled frisée. This was very nice.
Our fourth dish was a taste of Black Bean Potstickers with orange suprême and shoestring carrots in a peanut-tamarind sauce.
This was a good dish we enjoyed and almost didn’t want it to disappear from our table. I could have popped those little potstickers in my mouth all night.
Next came Creamy White Corn Polenta with garlic scapes, roasted cippolini onions, and kohlrabi salsa verde.
All I can say is: dangerously good. There was a substantial amount of cream or cheese or both in this polenta to make it so amazingly delectable. I had to leave some of it in the dish just to cut the guilt of so much travel-eating going on this weekend.
Our last “dinner” plate was the Culver Farm Duck Egg with smoked potato purée, parsley, and sourdough bread.
I must admit, I was disappointed with this dish. We both expected the duck egg to be a bit more runny, especially since the menu was clearly highlighting a local duck egg. The flavors were good and the parsley leaf pressed into paper-thin potato slices was a nice artistic touch, but for $12.50, I do expect the local duck egg to be treated like the royalty it is.
Our last dish was not just a disappointment- it was so memorable of a food experience I think we’ll refer to it for a while now. We ordered a cheese plate, which we almost always prefer to a sweet dessert. Our server was unsure which cheeses were on the plate, so she stumbled a bit before checking with the chef. When she returned with news of a goat, a cow, and an aged cheese, we said, yes, please.
The cheese platter was well presented, and the jams/chutney paired very well. But, our aged cheese was running like a river overflowing its banks out of the center. It was either too old, or too warm, both of which were disappointing for a place that should be on point from start to finish.
Overall, we had a pretty good dinner at Green Zebra. I’m glad to see a vegetarian restaurant in business so many years. It was full of guests when we were there, and I met a couple ladies in the restroom who weren’t vegetarians but were having a great time. So, they’re doing something right.
1460 West Chicago Ave
The pizza renaissance or revolution that swept through Boulder and Denver a few years ago really sparked an interest in us to explore some of the original American pizza artisans (which brought us to The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria, New Haven, CT) and some of our contemporary pizzaioli (Pizzicletta, Flagstaff, AZ). So, it only made sense that we’d end up in Chicago sooner rather than later.
Sean’s quite seasoned on Chicago dining, whereas I’d never been to The Windy City. He suggested we start off our long weekend at Piece for two reasons: #1- It’s a great pizzeria and brewery, winning many awards for its beer over the years. #2- He needed a new t-shirt as his old Piece shirt was stained.
I noticed as soon as we sat down that the menu says “New Haven Style Pizza,” so our September 2013 trip to Frank Pepe’s was clearly a good place to include in our pizza tasting journey.
We started off with a couple pints and then discussed the menu. We didn’t stick to our routine of trying the margherita pizza (or in this case, their “red” pizza). We went with a white pizza topped with roasted red peppers and basil.
Served on a sheet tray, this pizza is reminiscent of Frank Pepe’s and has a similar crackly thin crust, but, it’s less charred. I like that Piece acknowledges it’s east coast inspiration, and it’s clear that it’s doing something right as 2014 marks Piece’s thirteenth year in business.
Cheers to great pizza!