Saturday, September 18, 2010

Uncommonly Green: Dinner at the Uncommon Ground

For my birthday dinner, my wonderful boyfriend picked a place to take me that would combine many of my interests and passions in hopefully one unforgettable meal. He did his research and took me to the Uncommon Ground on a Friday night in September at their Edgewater location which boasts a locally grown menu, an organic rooftop "farm", and a weekly summer farmer's market.

The Farmers Market
Before entering the restaurant, we browsed and sampled at the Farmer's Market in the restaurant's parking lot that runs Fridays from 4-8pm through Sept 24th. Although it was a small market, it had a lot to offer. We thoroughly enjoyed samples including barbecue blue-cheese nuts (from Sweet Sophie's), honey caramel and citrus truffles (Katherine Anne Confections), fresh salsas and golden tomato jam (from Harvest Moon Organic produce) and Rain Organic Vodka. There were also several vendors with handmade jewelry and crafts.

Organic Rooftop "Farm"
Next, we went up to the restaurant's rooftop deck to explore the certified organic rooftop "farm". The produce and herbs grown here are used in dishes served at both Uncommon Ground locations. We spotted vine after vine of cherry tomatoes, countless peppers, fresh sage, and "companion plants" of marigolds. In a secluded corner of the deck, several bee hives were abuzz - serving as a means to pollinate the garden, help the in-crisis bee population, and also providing honey for the restaurant to serve.

The Restaurant
Finally, with expectations very high, we entered the restaurant through the front doors, plastered with proof of the many awards and certifications they've won for their both their food and their ecological accomplishments. And this is where our shining experience started to go dim.

We were seated at the worst table in an otherwise comfortable, cozy dining room - a two-top wedged tightly against a wall. We emptied our water glasses and they were not refilled until after we finished our meals. When the bill came, we realized that the server had brought us the wrong wine, although thankfully it was a cheaper bottle than what we had asked for.

The menu was speckled with names of local farms that also provide many of the ingredients. And while not a vegetarian restaurant, there were at least 3 appetizers and 3 entrees (orchiette, gnocchi, and a portobello sandwich) which I could choose from.

We started with an appetizer of summer-vegetable dumplings. We raved over the sweet, crisp bits of corn garnishing the plate, but sandly the garnish was all that shone. The vegetables in the dumpling lacked flavor and were stifled further by the overcooked wonton exterior.

My next course was the gnocchi. The gnocchi itself had no flavor. While I did enjoy the sauteed patty-pan squash, mixed veggies, and generous sprinkling of fresh parmesan mixed with the gnocchi, the dish simply didn't meld.

My boyfriend said his salmon was wonderful, but based on the underwhelming majority of the meal, we decided not to bother ordering dessert.

Regardless, it's still a uniquely green place in the city, and I will give them another chance someday, but with lower expectations. I've had better luck before at their Wrigleyville restaurant, and though that location lacks a farmers market and garden, it's full calendar of musical performances makes up for it.

Restaurant Tip: Their website advertises a 10% "low-carbon" discount for patrons who walk or bike to the restaurant.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Frozen Dinners: Lasagna with "Meat"

I like to categorize Vegetarians into two groups: Those who love fake-meat, and those who avoid it. I am an avid fake-meat lover. Therefore, MorningStar Farm's new line of frozen entrees sparked an interest for me. While there are a number of vegetarian dinners on the market, very few contain fake-meat as part of their balanced meals.
Tonight, I excitedly dove into MorningStar's "Lasagna with Sausage-Style Crumbles", but perhaps I went into it with my hopes set too high. The sausage crumbles didn't have a strong enough flavor to compete with the roasted-tomato flavor of the sauce. The veggies tasted bland, and well...frozen. And while the ricotta & cream cheese blend was rich and decadent, it didn't blend well with the rest of the dish. On the flip side, I do applaud their efforts to use low-fat cheeses and a multi-grain pasta blend, creating a lasagna with only 6g of fat and a nice 6g of fiber.I'd buy it again if it's on sale, and in the meantime I'll stick to my favorite fake-meat-less frozen lasagnas - Michaelangelo's Vegetable Lasagna and Amy's Vegetable Lasagna ... with either of these choices, you won't even miss the crumbles.