Chicago has long been a carnivorous dining city, from our historic hot dog stand to BBQ ribs to steakhouses old and new.
Still, Bloom Plant Based Kitchen in Wicker Park is firmly rooted, fighting for our future by showing us we don’t miss the meat when the food is amazing.
Chef and owner Rodolfo Cuadros opened the restaurant in 2021. Michelin has since awarded Bloom a Bib Gourmand title, while the James Beard Foundation named Cuadros a semifinalist for the 2022 Great Lakes Best Chef. The accolades are well deserved, as the dishes are so compelling that one recent evening, someone exclaimed: “Look at this – it’s art!”
I don’t know what our excited diner ate, but he was definitely right. Every dish is a marvel, even becoming a gateway plant dish for recognized carnivores: buffalo cauliflower.
“That’s exactly why we made this dish,” Cuadros said. “Because we’re trying to introduce this food to more and more people. We thought, ‘What’s the safest option we can give people? And then, ‘How can we turn this into something memorable?’ “
At Bloom, hard-fried nuggets are crunched under a fiery homemade habanero sauce and finished with feathery fried garlic. Instead of just breading and frying the cauliflower, Cuadros marinate it first and add complex flavors through the labor of the chef.
“In addition to the acidity, we add a lot of herbs and spices,” says the chef, adding a bit of nutritional yeast to give the vegetables a burst of umami. “Because we don’t use eggs or egg substitutes, the tempura we make is like backward tempura. We make the flour, the batter, the flour, and fry it,” adds Cudaros. The extra final flour dredging gives each bite a wonderfully crunchy texture.
This is by far the best buffalo cauliflower from the ubiquitous floret I’ve tried – he just took it off the menu.
“We’re going through a big menu change,” Cuadros said. “Compared to when we opened, our customers now have grown with us in terms of plant-based food. It’s a little bit more advanced than where we started.”
Margo’s Flat Bread is here to stay, served with a delicious mala arrabbiata sauce (subtly numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns), topped with beautiful black broccoli and ricotta-like fat cubes, made in house, all dairy free cheese. The eye-popping margherita-inspired pizza is a utterly ridiculous achievement for a plant-based restaurant that’s also gluten-free.
That meant we couldn’t find seitan, Impossible, or Beyond brand meat substitutes, or store-bought dairy-free cheeses, all of which chefs chose on purpose.
“We made a cashew cheese, which is a South American style cheese that means salty and astringent,” he said. They also produce their own chile oil. “It’s an easy pie and it’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun.”
At Bloom, you’ll find that most of what’s in front of you is far from simple.
The yucca gnocchi hint at the restaurant’s origin story. Plump dumplings baked to a crisp on the outside are served on a silky celery root puree, served with aromatic mushroom sofrito and garnished with shredded cashew pecorino.
“It’s actually based on a first dish I made for my wife’s vegetarian family,” Cuadros said. The couple met in Miami, where Cuadros worked in a hotel restaurant in the early 2000s.
Since then, he has created plant-based dishes based on his culinary tradition.
“Yucca gnocchi is one way I can fit into my heritage,” says the Colombian chef, who grew up between California and New York. “Fried yucca was a staple when I was growing up.”
On an intentionally priced menu, he turns staples into delicious, buttery bites.
“We didn’t want to distance ourselves from the brown and black communities that I come from because of the price,” Cuadros said. In keeping with that ethos, offering a 20% discount during happy hour is one of the restaurant’s recent big changes.
Bloom started out as a means of financial survival for the chef and his staff, and his first omnivorous restaurant, Amaru, had an early epidemic in the corner kitchen. Together, the two restaurants mirror what he does at home.
“We go plant-based four days a week, Monday through Thursday,” says the chef, who just opened vegan Don Bucio’s Taqueria in Logan Square just two months ago. His wife, Monique Cuadros, teaches special education at Galileo Scholastic Academy, a public magnet school in Little Italy. They have two daughters, 7 and 9 years old. “My wife and I are dealing with a changing world,” he said. “So hopefully when our kids have to adjust to a new world, they’ll be more willing to go completely plant-based, or whatever that is.”
Meanwhile, Bloom has been busy during my visit, with brunch on a cold Sunday, dinner on a rainy weekday, and happy hour on the first summer day of the year with the front windows wide open.
The spring dumplings make me wish our exciting art-loving diner is back so I can rush over to show him my plate. This stunning dish could be mistaken for Japanese sakura wagashi, a pink and pale green sakura dessert. At Bloom, what appears to be a leaf is actually artisanal pasta made with spring garlic and tender coconut, then wrapped in a soft stuffing of pickled carrots and fresh peas, finished with a lively beet and wasabi foam.
The delicate and bold dumplings are not just a stunning evolution of plant-based cuisine; they rival any expensive wagyu or foie gras tasting menu. With so much artisanal work put into Bloom’s food, it feels ancient and futuristic at the same time.
Pastry chef Veronica Manolizi consulted on the dessert menu, but Cuadros came up with hazelnut cream pie. A very elongated slice of almond coconut skin filled with a cashew milk caramel that has the texture of an impeccable chocolate ganache.
Created by director of operations Brett Lander, the Purple Pisco cocktail shakes the eponymous pisco spirit with violet liqueur, house-made lavender bitters and lemon, but uses an immersion blender to whip Versawhip and xanthan gum in place of the classic egg white foam. As a former consulting chef who specializes in whip and foam, I can tell you that aside from my technical approval, this is a delightful drink that’s as refreshing as elegant lemonade from your backyard garden.
Strawberry Styles non-alcoholic cocktail mixes Seedlip Spice 94 and house-made Strawberry Rosé liqueur for a lush late-summer sip.
The ambitious brunch offers a surprisingly rich selection, but somehow the pancakes and jalapeños are underwhelming, the former inexplicably heavy and the latter poorly decorated.
Shrooms & Waffles will restore all confidence, though, with deep-fried maitake mushrooms in perfectly puffy pockets, best filled with slow-melting smoked butter and piping hot Habanero maple syrup.
Cuadros’ sustainable, plant-based approach extends beyond his restaurants.
“We grow all the decorations in a small garden inside the restaurant,” Cuadros says. A small greenhouse can be found at the back of the restaurant, with plant box tops partitioned between booths. “All our electricity comes from green sources, wind and solar.”
They also went a step further with ORCA Digester.
“The best way I can describe it is liquid composting,” says Chef. “The machine is preloaded with enzymes and bacteria. Everything that goes in is tiny. It digests about 15 pounds of food an hour. The impact we’re seeing is a lot less rats in our alleys, which is a big problem in Chicago.” “
Not many chefs like to talk about rodents, or even their lack thereof, but Cuadros even wants to spread the message of sustainability to his meat-centric industry friends.
“I really like Chicago,” he added. “What I love most about Chicago is being one of the greenest cities in the world.”
1559 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Open: Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-9pm, Friday-Saturday 5-10pm, Sunday 5-8:30pm; Thursday-Saturday 11:30am-3pm Lunch; Brunch Sunday 11am pm to 3 pm
eat. watch. Do.
what to eat. what to look at. What you need to live your best life…now.
price: Appetizers $6-$23; Entrees $14-$28; Desserts $12, drinks $6-$90; Tuesday three-course dinner for two $75.
noise: conversation friendly
Accessibility: Single level with wheelchair access and restrooms
Forum Rating: Excellent, 3 stars
Rating key: Four stars, excellent; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Big screen or home live, takeout or dine-in, the writers at The Tribune are here to guide you to your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Eat. watch. Do.communication here.