I’d bet a million reais — or Brazilian dollars — that the people behind Chicago’s ZED451 would be happy if they never heard the words “Brazilian steakhouse” again.
Although this sprawling River North eatery started out as Sal & Carvao, a Brazilian churrascaria, its owner, California-based Tavistock Restaurants, clearly has invested a lot of money and effort to remove all vestiges of Gaucho culture from its décor and menu.
Today, this stylish restaurant defines itself as an “American upscale grill,” according to executive chef Patrick Quakenbush. “We are a melting pot, like America is a melting pot, of worldly flavors.”
Still, comparisons are inevitable, as some profound similarities obviously remain. Like the steakhouses, ZED451 offers “endless samplings” — Quakenbush eschews the phrase “all-you-can-eat” — of both the starters on its bountiful “harvest tables” and of the skewered and grilled proteins it serves tableside. (Here, however, gregarious white-coated chefs make the rounds rather than taciturn Gauchos.)
Additionally, diners pay a set price ($44/person for the full “ZED experience” or $25/person for the harvest tables only) and use objects — now rocks instead of the ubiquitous red and green-sided cardboard chips — to signal their interest or lack thereof in grilled items.
And that’s where the likeness ends. Because otherwise, comparing a Brazilian steakhouse to ZED451 is like comparing a “Geo Metro to a Mercedes,” according to my friend Eddie, who recently dined at ZED451 with his wife Sheila, “The Husband,” and me.
Like many upscale restaurants, ZED451 showcases locally-produced, in-season ingredients. “Fresh and seasonal, we live, breathe and die by that,” says Quakenbush, who updates his menu five times per year.
Quakenbush — who also eschews the word “salad bar” — clearly takes pride in his harvest tables. “We don’t offer lettuce and ranch dressing,” he says, taking a poke at those Brazilian steakhouse salad bars. Instead, the four tables feature a dizzying array of “composed salads” (which is a fancy phrase for fancy salads), homemade soups, artisan cheeses and charcuterie.
With so much to sample on the harvest table, our group got right down to business. Please note that what we tried may no longer be available, as the restaurant is currently changing over to its spring menu. Among the 18 composed salads, my favorites included roasted Brussels sprouts with prosciutto; sautéed wild mushrooms with feta cheese; and poached red wine pears. An admitted cheese-o-holic, I also had fun nibbling on the six featured cheeses, which were artfully displayed on granite slabs. (A special shout-out goes to Iowa’s Milton Creamery for their tasty Prairie Breeze cheddar-style cheese.)
Admittedly, Sheila and I were promptly stuffed from the Harvest Table. Sheila, ma petite fleur, called it quits. But being an intrepid reporter, I joined forces with Eddie and The Husband to tackle the next stage of our dining experience.
As soon as our rocks hit the table, we were inundated with grilled items proudly served by a cavalcade of personable young chefs. Each carefully explained the preparation of their dishes and cheerfully answered our numerous questions.
“I give [the chefs] the opportunity to put their personal spin on it,” Quakenbush says. “They come out and the guests get to experience 12 different personalities.”
Yes, these chefs brought us steak, including the restaurant’s signature buttermilk and rosemary bottom round and a to-die-for Australian Wagyu rump roast served with fire-roasted chipotle steak sauce. But some of the dozen items served included zesty Moroccan-spiced chicken, rich seared duck breast with Amaretto and pistachio butter, cayenne-dusted North Atlantic salmon and more.
I particularly liked ultra-tender slow roasted turkey served with homemade cranberry sauce and decadently salty sausages with honey-mustard-horseradish marmalade.
It’s safe to say that Eddie and The Husband whole-heartedly enjoyed themselves, as I literally had to beg them several times to put their rocks back in the center dish to halt service.
Still, I believe I was the one to insist that we order dessert (which is not included in the meal). We chose the buttery butterscotch bread pudding ($10). Our server was kind enough to add a scoop of chocolate-covered pretzel chocolate ice cream per my gluttonous request.
739 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610