Nutshell (3808 N Williams Ave., 292-2627 ) is a vegan restaurant, and why it's actually worth visiting is best explained by Chekhov: "A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more." Chekhov spoke metaphorically of life, not root vegetables, but his reasoning is the ethos of great cuisine: Ingredients ought to be themselves. And this is why vegetarian food has largely failed me—it treats a soybean like a hamburger.
It seems a shame that many who've adopted a lifestyle due to concern for Planet Earth show so little regard for its bounty—at least in restaurants that vainly try to replicate animal flesh. Not Nutshell.
"Soy is a ridiculous ingredient," says Chef Sean Coryell. "Instead of substituting, we treat ingredients right." That commitment is evident from round one: a bread menu adapted to a sushi-style format, wherein diners may choose from several types of bread, 10 or so extra-virgin olive oils and many varieties of artisan salt.
You'll find no tofu at Nutshell. Raw lasagna ($13) trades layers of sweet ripe heirloom tomatoes and earthy fungi with velvety pistachio pesto and pine-nut pâté. A cassoulet ($11) of shallots, red wine, broad beans, spinach, smoked paprika and fleur de sel is as good as the original. It's as if there's a spoonful of duck fat hiding in the mirepoix, but of course there is none.
The Jamaican-style barbecue ($13) seems what you'd expect of a meatless restaurant, but the flavors of grilled eggplant, flash-fried, battered okra, roasted yam, and coconut-stuffed orange exceed expectations. An earthy imported spaghetti ($9) with porcini cream, black and white truffles and veggies didn't quite replicate what could be made with butter, but was unbelievably creamy for herbivore fare.
Tabla and Ten01 proprietors Adam Berger and Michael Rypkema own the restaurant, and they've moved Ten01's tandoor oven to Nutshell for baked vegetables and housemade naan, which must be tried with the poblano-sorrel fundido ($7) appetizer. Coryell debuted his meatless fare at a vegan supper club at Tabla. The dinner series was so popular, the owners offered him his own restaurant.
So, is Coryell trying to convert us?
"Hell, no. I'm not proselytizing," he says. "I don't care if people eat meat." For Coryell, being vegan is about health. Stretch marks on his spry 160-pound body are reminders that he was once morbidly obese. Coryell's father was a restaurateur, and his childhood palate was steeped in culinary excess. By his 20s, he weighed 400 pounds. But a vegan diet has kept him trim for a decade. Coryell has been meatless for 12 years, even while cooking at some of America's top kitchens like San Francisco meat palace Rubicon to Portland's Zefiro.
Vegans are about as well-received by foodies as evangelists preaching in Pioneer Courthouse Square. But instead of pointing fingers at fauna eaters, Nutshell delivers delicious flora. One sour note: Nutshell doesn't take credit cards.