When you are unashamedly, irreversibly and all-consumedly obsessed with food, you tend to drift towards others who feel the same way. That was the impression I got from chef Michael Taus, self proclaimed “food and booze zealout” according to his Twitter page. Accordingly, Taus named Zealous as a tribute to a reference letter written by his early mentor chef Charlie Trotter, with whom he worked after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, an experience he speaks fondly of as he reminisces while introducing various dishes from his famed Tasting menu when I visited Zealous recently. Ironically, Zealous remains strong to this day while Charlie Trotter’s closed its doors last week after 25 years of service.
Chef Taus is friendly and fun, telling us how he introduced rocker friends to the food scene and how they continue to return to Zealous regularly. You may have heard of them, the Smashing Pumpkins, the group also having originated in Chicago. Taus is also enthusiastic, eager, and clearly defined by what he does. He tells us he is a bit of a handy-man, and how he recently found himself on a scissor-lift fixing something on the ceiling, which he also designed and helped build.
For a Thursday night, the restaurant seems quiet, until we spot the 40+ corporate function happening inside a glassed-off room to the side. It’s Zealous restaurant’s 19th year and to celebrate we are being treated to the “Best of the Best” 5 course Tasting Menu (vegetarian, in my case) with wine pairing, something the kitchen seems excited to share with me and, in return, with you. The menu features the best of the best dishes served up at Zealous over the past 19 years, while Chef Taus tells me of a customer who returns week after week requesting “something vegetarian”. It wasn’t until recently he discovered this same customer eating a chicken wing at a restaurant nearby, and learned that he is not actually vegetarian, simply curious to see what Chef will come up with next.
Starting with a Perrier and an amuse bouche of Tea Cucumber Sandwich with cream cheese, I can already tell Taus has as much fun with his food as he does with his Twitter page in this throw-back to 90s tea-parties (think watercress finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off). Our waiter asks “are you amused” as we finish off, a dad-joke if I ever heard one but a new one for me. Moments later we are being poured another glass, a Fournier sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, forming what he describes as a “wine wall” in front of us. The vocabulary and food cracks I’m picking up here are worth the trip alone. A bread roll, tasting distinctly like a brioche (and not in the I-accidentally-poured-a-whole-bag-of-sugar-into-the-loaf way I find with most American breads) has salt crystals and is peppered with dill, for which I have developed a new-found love and couldn’t be happier to discover in there.
Which leads us into the first course, Citrus and Roasted Beets with garam masala, seitan, Greek yoghurt and brussel sprouts, an underused and underestimated vegetable which works perfectly here. Next is a tomato twosome, an inventive take on old favourites, Gazpacho, served with Green Zebra tomatoes, blue corn chips and avocado mousse with an Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta on the side. Taus describes his visit to the Green City Market where he buys his produce, and we banter about the tomato varieties available at the MCA farmer’s markets I visit every Tuesday, aaah the conversations you can have with people who are infatuated with food just never get dull.
Next a Vegetarian Duo designed to delight has two components – Blue Goat Cheese and Cippolini Tacos on one side and on the other an Eggplant Gateaux with citrus ricotta and rapini which is TRÉS bitter but an interesting contrast.
I over-enthusiastically tuck into the palate cleanser of Cantaloupe Soup with simple syrup, fresh berries and papaya granita, too refreshing and much too naturally delicious to stop. It’s lucky we’re thoroughly cleansed when the desserts begin to arrive. The first plate with Lavender Parsnip Cake, oregano ice-cream and lavender cream, a Valrhona Milk Chocolate Parfait with cashew and cocoa nibs and a Sea-salt and Basil Ice-cream which has me wishing I had a Thermomix waiting at home, beckoning the Lezzet herbs and spices that just arrived to jump in and develop into fanciful combinations to feed my unsuspecting boyfriend and house-guests. Just when we think it’s all over out comes a plate of my favourite things, a simple Chocolate Cupcake with vanilla and blueberry, and the most delicate little blush pink Macarons with chocolate filling.
Chef Taus likes to chat. He likes to chat about food, he likes to chat about the restaurant business, he likes to chat about music. He likes to talk to you like you’re really having a conversation. It’s interesting actually, because many times I talk to chefs and while they want you to say nice things about them or their restaurants in your blog (I am not in the business of ruining people’s livelihoods, and grew up with the slogan “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. He seems to appreciate this attitude and while I wouldn’t be telling you to go anywhere that was simply a disaster, I think silence says a lot when it comes to reviews), they don’t understand what it is you do or why. I guess that would make two of us. In this case however, Taus is keen to know about the vegetarian side of things and he doesn’t steer clear of the meat subject either. It can be interesting when you’re talking to somebody who feels like they might offend you at the mention of the word “steak” or “barbecue”, especially when that’s the language they speak the best. He’s open and absorbed, good qualities in anybody and particularly in somebody who has been in the business of making people happy since they could walk and talk. Taus is a natural entertainer, and it translates into his food. It’s clear he’s here to please, and please he does.
Go to Zealous for the atmosphere and the experience as much as the food, I think you’ll enjoy it! The anniversary specials are on until the end of September and honestly, how could you miss out on the Best of the Best? Make sure you say hi to the chef.
419 West Superior Street Chicago, IL 60654