I’m not vegan or even vegetarian, but I love plants. And given the rigors of eating for a living, my main tactic for staving off gout is eating meat-free as often as possible. Still, I can’t pretend that I know what it’s like to search for palatable vegan options in a city that has historically catered to carnivorous.
That said, Chicago is positively teeming with delicious, inventive vegetable cookery. Pop into Logan Square mainstay Lula Cafe on Mondays for the farm dinner that never repeats, or consider a breakfast of rutabaga soup and escarole salad with pickled huckleberries at sustainable-AF Cellar Door Provisions. Korean-Italian Passerotto’s umami-rich bagna cauda subs in doenjang (fermented soybeans and brine) for anchovies, and XO sauce occasionally turns vegan with mushrooms.
Perched on the seventh floor of shiny Saks Fifth Avenue on the Magnificent Mile, Althea is 100 percent plant-based, the latest in a swelling vegan empire from California celebrity chef Matthew Kenney’s namesake brand. You’ll find all the clever trappings of a by-the-book vegan restaurant—a dehydrator, fat-rich cashews and macadamias manipulated in every possible way and an ocean’s worth of umami-rich seaweed.
Save for a few standout dishes, Althea largely lacks joyful ingenuity. The globetrotting menu—dutifully executed by chef de cuisine Kelsey Knowles—at times registered trite and clinical, removed from the locally fueled, seasonal-minded energy that’s seized the city Althea overlooks from its glass-walled roost.
Seated in the airy, luxe dining room with its cushy seats and sweeping Mag Mile views, it’s easy to forget you’re in a department store. The same can’t be said for the bar, from which you can almost touch the men’s designer underwear display. My two dining companions and I were surprised to discover that no booze yet flows from said bar, despite that the website posits an extensive biodynamic cocktail, beer and wine program. (The liquor license arrives in May.)
I started with a pleasantly tart-sweet, muddled blackberry and sage mocktail with rosewater syrup; my date’s agave-sweetened Somewhere in Thyme, with jasmine tea, orange blossom water and lemon juice, tasted like zhuzhed-up lemonade.
Our server and the general manager, who often helped truck out and bus our plates, were wonderfully fluent in all things plants. Their candor guided us toward some of our choicest bites, like the house-cultured cheese plate with snappy fennel crackers. This delightful spread stars tangy harissa cheddar and earthy porcini-truffle pate, both blitzed with probiotic-cultured cashews.
Dehydrated coconut and pulverized cilantro made a verdant, toothy jacket for a dumpling filling of house kimchi and puréed cashews that had a onenote flavor of soy and sesame. We relished an accompanying swipe of vinegar-soused cabbage purée. Warm udon noodles satisfied with sea-salty togarashi and fat bricks of tempeh, in starchy broth infused with creamy black garlic hoisin sauce.
The avocado tikka descriptor excited us with images of the creamy veg steeped in an aromatic Indian curry marinade; the reality was cold slices of avocado wading in cashew yogurt emulsified with curry-infused grapeseed oil, alongside charred potato bread. The $20 kung pao cauliflower was the biggest disappointment of all: Roasted florets draped in cloying Chinese-American takeout sauce sat atop an unceremonious pile of fluffed quinoa like something from the frozen-food section.
Just then, Knowles’s beautiful, texturally confounding cacio e pepe arrived. Reinterpreting this Roman amalgam of butter, stock and cheese is always a risky bet, which makes Althea’s version—served subversively cold, no less!—all the more special. Cashew cream imbued with tangy nutritional yeast, black pepper and crispy oil-cured olives enrobed a tangle of springy kelp noodles and sweet, young pea shoots. It was a beautiful new vehicle for the typically indulgent, umami-rich original, and ignited hope that more playful imagination dwells in that kitchen.
For now, vegans and health-minded herbivores trekking the Mag Mile will no doubt welcome this well-intentioned lunch and dinner option. In the sense that Althea seems geared to ladies and gentlemen who lunch (and juice), it achieves its goal. But at this moment, Chicago deserves more.
Atmosphere: Tucked on the seventh floor of shiny Saks Fifth Avenue, this airy, glass-walled eatery from plant-focused celebrity chef Matthew Kenney caters to shoppers craving plant-based sustenance.
What to eat: Don’t miss the ingenious kelp noodle cacio e pepe or the nut-derived artisanal cheese plate. Clever vegan desserts include a fluffy coconut cream pie with a crisp, buttery macadamia crust.
What to drink: Mocktails tend toward sweet, but the blackberry + sage pressed juice is a refreshingly bright sipper. Come late May, expect biodynamic cocktails, beer and wine.
Where to sit: The serene, 72-seat dining room boasts spectacular views of the Mag Mile and a welcome escape from the incandescent lighting of Saks’ men’s department.