It’s a challenge for vegetarians to find a wine that pairs well with their beloved foods. What in the world do you sip with pomegranate salad, sunchoke soup, buckwheat pappardelle, or mushroom steak? Vegetarian cuisine has endless variations, yet many people consider only sparkling wine and Pinot Noir as their go-to favorites for pairing.
What I recently experienced at Green Zebra, however, not only changed my perception of vegetarian food and wine pairings, but my palate, as well. With a broad wine list and creative menu offerings, Green Zebra is now on my radar whenever I crave quality vegetarian fare complemented with a perfect glass (or bottle) of interesting wine.
Green Zebra is located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, at 1460 West Chicago Avenue. Considered a “contemporary vegetarian experience”, Shawn McClain (Executive Chef/Owner), David Chapman (Chef de Cuisine), and Bill Walker (Sous Chef) have created an aesthetically appealing space in which foodies can enjoy fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farmers, foragers, and members of the community. Liz Burke (Sommelier) has been with Green Zebra “off and on” since the restaurant opened in 2004; winelovers couldn’t be more thrilled to have Liz at the helm.
I was invited to taste wines and food at Green Zebra by one of my industry colleagues in the public relations team at Isabelli Media Relations…and I leapt at the chance to do so. That evening, as we sipped a variety of wines with a bountiful array of small plates, Liz Burke shared her thoughts about pairing our favorite beverage with vegetarian food.
“First and foremost, when it comes to taste, you are looking for something that either complements or contrasts with the dish presented. Certain vegetables can be quite challenging: asparagus, artichokes, and more. I have found that traditionally I am looking for wines that have a more fruit forward component. Vegetables tend to have a bit more acidity to them and I have found wines with a more fruit based profile with nicely balance acidity work best.” Liz Burke, Sommelier, Green Zebra
The food and wine pairing process seems simple in theory, but is it really? When Liz tastes a dish early in the day, she opens wines to understand which pairs best. “Most of the time, I will start with wines that I’m currently serving by the glass to figure out where I need to go with regards to sweetness, acidity, and weight. Then, I begin to narrow it down. Do I need a heavier wine, a sweeter wine, a wine with more acidity? I keep tasting until I find what I’m looking for. When I think that I have it figured out, I bring it to the chefs for them to confirm or deny what I think works.”
The Baby Beets Salad with chocolate cookie crumble, crème fraiche, blood orange, toasted almonds was paired with 2015 Gewürztraminer/Müller-Thurgau/Riesling/Pinot Gris ‘Borealis’, Montinore Estate from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. With the mélange of tastes, Liz feels that the wine, with its different grapes, brings unique nuances to the dish. She was right, thanks to subtle spice and sweet notes with each sip.
When you visit Green Zebra, promise that you’ll ask for the Pomegranate Salad with Bleeding Heart radishes, ricotta salata cheese, Werp Farms lettuces, pumpkin seeds, compressed persimmons, and Green Goddess dressing. And don’t forget the brilliant wine pairing. Liz chose NV Gamay, ‘FRV 100’, Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées from Beaujolais, a sparkling Gamay that “isn’t too sweet and has a bit more acid that counterbalances the creamy and delicious Green Goddess dressing.”
“White wines go well with lighter vegetables, greens and fruits. A savory element is helpful and a little element of fat or salt. Most whites work well with vegetables with the exception of heavily oaked whites and whites with blazing acidity.” Liz Burke, Sommelier, Green Zebra
When the absolutely gorgeous soup, with its mesmerizing aromas, was served, I was curious as to the wine pairing. In my humble opinion, soups can be difficult to pair effectively, but Liz nailed it. The Truffled Sunchoke Soup with gremolata, chives, capers, and chopped hazelnuts was more delicious that I could have imagined with each sip of 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Paul Cluver from Elgin, South Africa. Having tested a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Liz felt that the intense fruit and acidity overpowered the dish and tastes of a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley were “too soft – the soup just crushed it.” Dubbed Goldilocks in this situation, Liz chose the Paul Cluver. It has “great fruit but not too strong and the acidity is just right.”
As if the sparkling wines and Sauvignon Blanc weren’t enough, two red wines were poured to pair with more courses. I was curious…what characteristics in vegetarian food are best with reds? Liz shared that “mushrooms, with its earthiness, are amazing to pair with red wines. Tomatoes also pair nicely, as well as anything charred, smoked, roasted, or smoked.”
And just like that, the dishes were served. A creamy and rich Whole Wheat Caramelle Pasta with arugula onion filling, Cerignola olives, pickled pepper puree, and shaved Parmesan Reggiano burst with flavor with each sip of 2013 Cotes du Rhone Village Domaine Roche, a fruit forward blend of Grenache and Syrah from the Rhone Valley. The Trumpet Royale Mushroom Steak, black trumpet mushrooms with crispy potatoes, mushroom bordelaise, creamed spinach, and glazed carrots, boasted a weighty texture and savory notes. Complementing the mushroom steak was a wine just as bold – 2012 Hedges Family Estate, a broad Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend from Red Mountain, Washington.
“First and foremost, the wines need to be delicious and pair with the food, but I also feel that…it needs to be interesting to me and to the guests. One of the great things about pairing is that I can introduce people to wines that they probably would never have tried.” Liz Burke, Sommelier, Green Zebra
Vegetarian fare is much more sophisticated and accessible than many people think. Green Zebra is the place to discover and explore its unique flavors and presentation. And exceptional wines that make each bite even better? Liz Burke is there to guide you to some of the most interesting pairings you’ll have.
NOTE: Green Zebra is open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:00 to 10 pm and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. For more information about Green Zebra, please call (312) 243-7100, visit www.greenzebrachicago.com, or the restaurant’s Facebook and Twitter pages.