The supreme pizza at Kitchen 17 (Brittany Sowacke/For RedEye )
From this summer’s vegan menu at Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next to the buzz about plant-based diets, veganism is definitely having a moment.
“A few years ago, people said, ‘Oh, vegan? What does that mean?” said Don Clements, who opened all-vegan BYOB cafe Kitchen 17 (613 W. Briar Place 773-661-1757) in East Lakeview in early May. While vegetarians eat meat-free, vegans also forgo animal products including dairy, eggs and honey. Clements went vegan for a combination of health, animal rights and environmental reasons. “In the last few years, the amount of growth [in vegan awareness] has just been huge,” he said.
Clements is right on. When dining out with my vegan friend Jessica, servers used to suggest dishes with cheese or even seafood when she asked what vegan options were available. Now, there are more restaurants than ever in Chicago serving vegan dishes—some exclusively so (see sidebar).
At Kitchen 17, Clements crafts his own meat substitutes to use in dishes that he said he hopes won’t “scare off” non-vegans, such as pizza and his popular Philly cheesesteak sandwich. A staunch carnivore myself, I brought my vegan pal to dinner to so we could taste-test a few dishes on the menu.
Philly cheesesteak ($8)
Clements’ mock beef is peppered seitan (wheat gluten) baked into a meatloaf shape, sliced super-thin and stuffed into a roll with roasted green peppers, red onions and dairy-free cheese.
The vegan says: I haven’t ever had an actual Philly cheesesteak, so to be honest, I don’t really know if this tastes like one. The meat tastes like a gyro to me, but I do really like the soft bread.
The carnivore says: I have had a real Philly cheesesteak, and I agree that this tastes more like a gyro. The mozzarella-like cheese on top does sort of replicate a Philly’s traditional cheese sauce, and overall, it does have the feel of a cheesesteak.
Not chicken salad ($8)
Clements said he starts with “the firmest tofu I can possibly get,” and then freezes, thaws and presses it to draw out extra moisture for a chewy chicken-like texture. Finishing touches include poultry seasoning, chopped celery and onion, stone-ground mustard and veganaise.
The vegan says: This could use a thicker sauce; it’s pretty drippy. There’s not much celery or anything else besides the tofu chunks to emulate a true chicken salad. That said, this is something I’ve never seen anywhere else, so that makes it a treat that I would definitely order again.
The carnivore says: No one would mistake this for actual chicken, but the tofu chunks do have a sturdy texture that’s more meat-like than usual. I gotta say, though, Clements definitely could afford to pump up the volume as far as flavor goes. I could hardly taste the rosemary or tarragon in the poultry seasoning.
Supreme pizza ($14)
Most pizza dough already is vegan, but few pizzerias have vegan versions of cheese and meat to put on top. Clements makes his own seitan sausage and pepperoni and piles ’em on with green and black olives, onion, shreds of vegan cheese and tomato-basil sauce.
The vegan says: The super-thin crust isn’t my favorite, but that’s just personal preference. Wasn’t there supposed to be pepperoni? I thought it was missing, but it turns out Clements cuts his seitan pepperoni into chunks, not the thin slices I was expecting.
The carnivore says: It would seem more like a traditional pizza with more cheese on top, but because vegan cheese doesn’t really have the same satisfyingly stretchy texture as real cheese, I can see why it’s used sparingly here. The sausage is probably the closest to actual meat that I’ve tasted here, thanks to fennel and garlic that trick my tastebuds. With a big bite of olives and red onion, I can almost imagine it’s real sausage. Almost.
Orange demi cake ($3.50)
Clements bakes cookies and brownies that share space in the pastry case alongside cute little cakes (called demis) crafted by a friend.
The vegan says: This is really good, but I can’t figure out what this tastes like. Some kind of cereal … Fruit Loops!
The carnivore says: Without wonders such as cream cheese, butter and good ol’ lard for richness, dairy-free treats are sometimes dry and lifeless. This has an awesome texture and, though the flavor is more like orange candy than actual orange, it’s pretty tasty.
9 MORE VEGAN FAVES
1023 W. Belmont Ave. 773-549-4904; 218 S. Clark St. 312-332-6332; 1484 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-489-8480
Everything at this counter-service cafe—from the bacon cheeseburger to the cupcakes—is entirely plant-based.