For America’s third-largest city, Chicago feels like it’s behind the curve when it comes to vegan restaurants, says Rudolfo Cuadros. For Cuadros, a former chef at Carnivale, the city continues to battle the “hog butcher to the world” descriptor even though Fulton Market’s meat packers are long gone, replaced with upscale restaurants and office space.
But Cuadros wants to change that with his new Wicker Park restaurant, Bloom Plant Based Kitchen. The restaurant, which debuts Friday, is an outgrowth of a pandemic experiment started inside Cuadros’s first restaurant, Amaru. When COVID-19 suspended indoor dining, Cuadros rolled the dice on Bloom, a virtual restaurant hoping to help Amaru survive. Cuardos created an international menu that mixed Latin, Indian, and other international flavors. Bloom became such a hit that Cuadros began searching for a separate space. The former Links Taproom, which is a four-minute walk from Amaru, provides Cuadros with an ideal situation.
Cuadros and his team transformed the Links space themselves, making it more airy and bright. There’s also a shelf where they’re growing their own microgreens. They’re working with Closed Loop Farms. There’s plenty of plants around the space, and there’s a small bar. The restaurant is BYO to start but once he secures a liquor license, Cuadros says expect to see an array for rum and gin drinks. The wine list is also vegan.
Cuadros isn’t vegan, but has reduced his meat intake over the years. He feels healthier and acknowledges that it’s better for the environment. Sharing a love of vegan food with other omnivores brings him joy.
“The idea that we can hopefully do a little better to make people a little healthier, to have a little bit impact in the world, that in itself is super exciting,” he says.
During a preview service earlier this week, Cuadros talked about shattering perceptions. Too many diners underestimate plant-based cooking. He and business partner Horacio Rivadero describe efforts to convince older men — the type that grew up dining in steakhouses — that vegetables are delicious and wouldn’t leave them hungry. One of them later told the chefs that he was surprised as “his wife told him he was going this.”
“You have to include everyone,” Rivadero says. “Whether you come in in a Rolls Royce or take the bus or train.”
Cuadros adds that they want Bloom’s cuisine to impress Alinea diners, fans of corner taquerias, and everyone else in between.
Bloom is both vegan and gluten free. There is only one carryover item from the ghost kitchen: the cashew di pepe, a non-dairy version of the pasta dish with cashew cream and kelp noodles. When debuting Bloom last year, Cuadros acknowledged that he made a conscious decision not to offer Latin dishes. He wanted to differentiate the menus from Amaru’s.
“For me it’s how far I can push the [vegan] dishes to compete with other dishes that I would make,” Cuadros says.
Now that he has a separate space, he can offer things like tacos. He uses banana blossoms to emulate fish. An asada taco is made with a hemp seed-corn tortilla and forest mushrooms. There’s a ceviche made with stone fruits (Rivadero points out this is unusual; many vegan chefs will opt for mushrooms). This dish will change seasonally. The two chefs are excited about nailing textures, something vegan food companies have spent millions of dollars trying to achieve in hopes of attracting meat eaters as customers.
The menu’s highlight is a cultured cheese board of non-dairy cheeses made on premises. It’s a laborious five-day process to ferment and marinate the ingredients to bring out the right balance of umami and funk, Cuadros says. There’s also considerable time spent on aesthetics. The spirulina blue cheese actually looks like the blue cheese found at a wine bar. Another challenge is pricing — some vegans are reluctant to spend money at restaurants. The cheese board, at $22, is the priciest item on the menu.
Rivadero has heard this rationale as he’s worked at Plant Food + Wine in Miami, which opened in 2017, a restaurant from famed vegan chef Mathew Kenney. Rivadero is also from Argentina, a country known for its beef consumption. He’s now going to spend more time in Chicago helping Cuadros, a longtime friend and mentee. Rivadero feels customers will appreciate the cheese board.
“Why do people pay $75 for one 4-ounce cut of Wagyu?” he asks.
The desserts are also worth noting. Rivadero’s wife, Veronica Manolizi, is a pastry chef and helped come up with recipes for vegan versions of sweets that are rare in Chicago. A coconut flan has the same creaminess of the original without the dairy. A cheesecake uses sweet potatoes and a coconut cardamom cream.
He met Cuadros nearly 20 years ago. The two reminisced about coming home late from restaurant jobs and watching Iron Chef Japan, spending the next day in the kitchen talking about the competition. Bloom offers the part to relive the good time while tackling a new project. And with the pandemic, it’s been a minute since Wicker Park enjoyed a major restaurant opening. Omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans can all enjoy this one. Bloom Plant Based Kitchen opens tonight.