Worshiping at the Alter of Althea

Guru. Pioneer. Celebrity. Savant. God.

Matthew Kenney is many things to his multitude of fervent followers, but one thing cannot be denied: The man knows how to cook. Well, more accurately, he knows how to treat his vegetables right, heat need not be applied. He is not just a chef, but a brand in and of himself. Commanding the table at over two dozen fine dining establishments worldwide, he’s arguably the trailblazer at the head of the raw food movement. These days, his formal education from the French Culinary Institute manifests in less rigid preparations, mandating minimal processing, rather than a complete abstinence of heat.

Three Beet Carpaccio

As a prominent figure in the plant-based movement from the days before it was cool, his name hit my radar sporadically, but my experience with his food has been limited. Only once before, over a decade ago, was I fortune enough to dine at Pure Food and Wine before its scandalous closure. Thankfully, the man is unflappable, soldiering on with new projects seemingly sprouting up everyday. Althea in Chicago offers a compact menu of re-imagined classic dishes spanning numerous global cuisines, along with Kenney’s own fusion creations. The only knock against the place is location. Completely hidden away on the 7th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, you must navigate through racks of stiff men’s suits and deftly dodge the perfume counter to earn your meal.

Kimchi Dumplings

Stemming from the Greek name that can be applied to either a woman or a man, Althea means “wholesome,” from the verb althos, meaning ‘to heal’. Fittingly, the mission statement of the eponymous restaurant is to meld plant-based culinary art and ultimate nutrition.

Mightyvine Tomato + Zucchini Lasagna

Most raw approaches treat food only as fuel, leaching out all the joy and whimsy from the act of eating. This was one of the rare instances I can look back on the concept and it has the potential to compete with any Michelin-starred cooking.

Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe

Truly alive in more ways that old-school “uncookery” would imply, colors vibrate off immaculately plated dishes, flavors explode with incomparable intensity; the full essence of each vegetable is celebrated. You won’t find dehydrated planks of flaxen juicer pulp here. This menu is designed from a place of joy and abundance, from a creative food lover unleashed from traditional culinary boundaries. Defying easy explanation, this is an experience that you simply must enjoy firsthand to properly grasp. Book your table, book your tickets, get yourself out there; it’s worth traveling any distance to enjoy.

Althea
700 N Michigan Avenue
7th Floor
Chicago, IL 60611

Wordless Wednesday: Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

Kimchi Soup with wood ear mushrooms, cabbage, miso

Chickpea Panisse with new mexico chili, spinach, tokyo turnip, grapefruit chermoula, sunchoke, smoked paprika

Brussels Sprouts with preserved yuzu, cashew, tamari, aleppo

Spicy Tomato Pizza with olive, caper, cashew puree, chili oil, parsley + extra maitake mushrooms

Gather
2200 Oxford St.
Berkeley, CA 94704

(Title Reference; Seize the Day)

Lump Sum

The first time I heard the term “lumpia,” I thought it was a quirky insult. As in, “yo mama’s so lumpia…” and fill in the blank. The real insult is that lumpia aren’t well known throughout the US to begin with. Culinary trendsetters keep proclaiming that Filipino food will be the next big craze, year after year, but I just haven’t seen it take hold as promised. While you can’t walk a full city block without passing at least one pizza parlor or sushi bar, you’d be lucky to stumble across a single Filipino restaurant in an entire metropolitan area.

What gives? Why aren’t kids begging their parents for sizzling platters as a Friday night treat? Where are all the long-simmered stews and punchy, vinegar-spiked sauces? So many of the classic staples share Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and even American influences, so why don’t they translate the same way overseas?

Lumpia should be considered the gateway dish, an easy introduction to this true melting pot of flavors. Like common spring rolls or egg rolls, the concept itself is highly flexible. Fillings can be either sweet or savory, bundled together in thin wheat wrappers, and served either fresh or deep-fried. Let’s be real though: The best, and most popular sort are fried to crispy, golden-brown perfection, and dunked into a sour, salty, and savory dip of vinegar and soy sauce.

This particular recipe comes from Chef Reina Montenegro of Nick’s Kitchen, one of the very few vegan Filipino eateries I know of, boasting two locations in San Francisco proper. Traditionally, the most popular sort of lumpia combines vegetables like bean sprouts, string beans, and carrots with cheap cuts of meat, but you’d never miss the animal addition here. Mushroom powder makes up for the umami essence in spades, and honestly, any filling would be delicious once anointed with bubbling hot oil.

Take a bite while the rolls are still steaming hot, caramelized exteriors instantly shattering upon impact, and you’ll immediately understand the appeal. You can eat with your hands, call it a snack or a meal, and easily convince picky children to eat a rainbow of vegetables.

If this is your first introduction to Filipino cuisine, welcome to the party. Next up should be Chef Reina’s famous, unbelievably eggless tofu sissig silog for breakfast,… If I could ever needle that secret formula out of her. You work on those lumpia, and I’ll work on that subsequent recipe.

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From Burma, with Love

Some restaurants have a signature dish; one exceptional entree that’s a must-order every time. Much to the dismay of the indecisive diner, the entire menu at Burma Superstar (and sibling eateries Burma Love and Burma Club) reads like an endless stream of top hits. You can’t leave without trying the inimitable tea leaf salad, tossed table side to provide both dinner and a show, but don’t forget about the spicy samusa soup and crispy yet creamy fried yellow bean tofu, too. Then there’s also the tofu kebat, a tangy tomato stir-fry, and you simply must taste the long simmered, smoldering heat of the eggplant curry. Shame if you didn’t leave room for dessert, or at least a bite of coconut rice, which straddles the line between sweet and savory for compatible crossovers in every course.

My deepest condolences to anyone hoping to try something different on a solo visit. Considering the inevitable line at any location, any hour of the day, the stakes are high to make every meal count. With limited time and stomach capacity, it’s overwhelming to consider the full range of options without defaulting back to those fool-proof favorites.

At least the Burma Superstar cookbook makes it possible to get your fill of all the best-sellers, sleeper hits, and undiscovered treasures at home. Sparing no secrets, this glossy tome to Burmese cookery deserves every bit as much praise as the eateries, if not more, for making the recipes accessible to all eaters. Much of the menu is already vegan or veganizable, and the options expand infinitely when starting from scratch with readily available meat and seafood alternatives.

Still, some of the best dishes are those that have been plant-based from the start. I must return to those famous Superstar Noodles, which combine thick and chewy wheat noodles with aromatic five spice tofu and a battery of crunchy seeds and split peas, all tangled together in a tart, tangy, sweet, and spicy tamarind lacquer.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book in a random stroke of luck a month ago, and now I want to spread the love. If you’d like the full play list of this Bay Area institution’s cult hits, I’m thrilled to share a copy with another hungry cook and loving home. That’s right, I’m giving away this gorgeous cookbook, with the blessing of the Burma Superstar masterminds themselves. All you have to do is leave me a comment about your favorite Burmese food, or what you’d like to try most if you’ve never had it before, and log your entry in the form below. This giveaway not sponsored nor associated with Burma Superstar. Residents of the continental US only, for shipping purposes.

If you just want a taste to see what you’re in for, continue on to get the lightly adapted recipe for this famous noodle recipe, poised to become the headlining star of any meal.

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