Hi, Food Friends. I was recently invited to be a guest at ZED451, a Chicago restaurant I’d never been to, and while I don’t normally do restaurant reviews (unless something utterly blows my mind), I accepted the invitation because I was really interested in the concept of it – and sometimes restaurants can be great cooking inspiration. ZED (we’re on a first-name basis now) is smack in the lively River North neighborhood of Chicago (the corner of Clark & Superior, to be exact). The design is contemporary, yet somehow very warm and cozy at the same time – despite its hugeness (full capacity is 800 people – so if you’re having a big — really big — party, it’s perfect! Plus they have lovely private dining rooms for up to 40 people).
Here’s the concept: for $48 per person, you get to sample the twenty-something dishes from a serve-yourself area chock full of salads, cheeses and charcuterie. It’s amazing. Seriously.
And after you’ve tried everything you want to, you set a little stone on the table, which is the signal to “bring on the meat!” I’ve (unbelievably) never been to a Brazilian-style steak house, but I think ZED took a cue. Chefs come out with big skewers of grilled beef, pork belly (to die for; very lean and flavorful), venison and plates of fish and Portuguese Linguica sausage (with an amzing Dijon-horseradish dipping sauce). You just let them know how much you want of each offering, and if you’re me, you return to the Harvest Table for a few more house-made bread-and-butter pickles (shut up – I could’ve eaten the entire platter of these) and some grilled veg to accompany your meat adventure.
My two favorites from the meat-stravanganza: the Wagyu rump roast (never tasted anything that good – pure beef deliciousness and perfectly cooked) and the pork belly (which can often be greasy and fatty; this was, again, perfectly cooked and very lean).
You know what else is cool? ZED hires culinary students and other aspiring chefs, and they cook the meat like they own it. They’re all really excited about serving you what they cooked, and I like that. A lot.
Now, aside from the Harvest Table (where the bajillion salad, cheese and charcuterie options are) and the meat service, you can also order side items and small plates in the Liquid Lounge. My friend Emily and I particularly enjoyed the Rosemary Cooler cocktail, which was El Tesoro tequila and I’m sorry I can’t remember what else, garnished with the most fragrant rosemary sprig. Completely delightul.
And, yes we also had dessert (we were in it to win it, people!). So here comes the S’mores plate. Behold the before and after shots:
Yes, it was huge. And it came with peanut-butter and jelly ice cream! And yes, they gifted us with a sample of their salted caramel ice cream (amazing), on top of it all. It was all delish.
So we were full. But very excited about what we’d eaten! Below are my top five inspirations:
1) Cumin sour cream. This was served on top of a shotglass of red pepper-jalapeno soup, and I wonder why I’ve never spiced up sour cream before? With chili? With Mexican food? With spuds? I’m doin’ it.
2) Candied fruit with cheese. ZED has idelicious candied apricots with mustard seeds – divine — especially with some of their locally sourced cheeses. I always do honey with cheese, even marmalade, but why not whole apricots or figs, stewed a little bit, with some sugar and water? I’m doin’ it.
3) Roasted cauliflower with grapes. One of my favorite salads. First, roasted cauliflower is delicious. But ZED adds some roasted (and I think salted) grapes to the whole shebang, and the flavor and texture are a delight. I’m doin’ it.
4) Bread and butter pickles. Yes, they’re an old-fashioned relish-tray staple, but pickles are having their moment in restaurants these days. The executive sous chef Paul Morrison makes these in-house, and if he can make ’em, so can I. Plus which, he freely shares recipes with anyone who wants ’em. God, they’re good. I’m doin’ it.
5) Peanut butter and jelly ice cream. How fun is this? The pastry chef, Liz Finley, makes amazing ice creams, and this was a peanut butter ice cream, with jelly swirled in. How good would this be served on some grilled white-bread for dessert? Like a new-wave PB&J sandwich! I’m doin’ it.
So – thank you very much, ZED 451, for a fun and delicious and inspirational evening. If you find yourself in Chicago, you are sure to have a great meal at ZED.