CHIReview

Some things don’t look great on paper even if they actually are, like the nine-month gap in your employment history from when you were scrubbing oil-soaked wildlife. Althea, an expensive vegan restaurant in the men’s section of a department store, on its surface might seem unpromising at first, too. But this place has more upscale and interesting food than what you find at a lot of vegan restaurants, and that makes it worth your attention.

So yes, Althea is inside Saks Fifth Avenue on Michigan Ave. And unless you have fond memories of family dinners at The Walnut Room, Althea’s location might be unappealing. It’s all the way up on the seventh floor, and depending on your seat you’ll either have a view of the Magnificent Mile or half-naked mannequins while you eat. Regardless, when the surprisingly attractive food arrives, you’ll forget you just walked by an underwear display next to the host stand.

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Althea’s menu is 100% vegan, and while it has some tasty dishes like kung pao cauliflower, you’ll want to focus on the more creative menu options. Like a delicious cacio e pepe made with kelp noodles in an intensely flavorful cashew sauce that’s way richer than any gluten-free raw dish has a right to be. The kimchi dumplings are also very good, with delicate wrappers made of dehydrated coconut that are chewy in an oddly satisfying, Fruit Roll-Up sort of way. And the spicy udon bowl is one of our favorite things here. It includes pieces of tempeh that add some funk and texture to a well-balanced sweet and spicy hoisin broth.

But some dishes here are pretty boring and not very good. The flatbread pizza (topped with a macadamia ricotta and pesto) has a greasy and underbaked crust that’s terrible. The $14 avocado tikka is so simplistic that it feels both silly and expensive - it’s a plate of some sliced avocado on a spread of curried yogurt, with tough potato bread served on the side. And if you have questions about the menu, your server might not have answers. They’ll disappear for a while to ask the kitchen, but at least you can use the extra time to look at Hugo Boss shirts while you walk to the bathroom.

Like an IUD, Althea doesn’t make sense for everyone. But if you need an upscale vegan restaurant that can accommodate a bunch of dietary restrictions, you’ll want to have Althea in your toolbox. This restaurant has creative plant-based food that will make you happy whether you’re vegan, gluten-free, or just in the market for a luxury bathrobe.

Food Rundown

Kimchi Dumplings

This is a very pretty dish, and it tastes good, too. The thin dumpling wrappers are made of dehydrated coconut, and their chewy texture goes well with the cashew and kimchi filling.

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Spicy Udon

This is a delicious bowl of noodle soup with tempeh that’s a little funky and does a great job of balancing out the sweet and spicy hoisin and cashew broth.

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Cacio E Pepe

We love this. The kelp noodles are chewy, and the sauce is rich and peppery. It’s very satisfying, and even if you’re not vegan and/or keeping a raw diet, it’s disconcerting how fantastic it is.

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Plant Bowl

This is what a vegan straight out of Central Casting might order. The bowl is filled with quinoa, lentils, roasted vegetables, kale, and served with lemon tahini - the whole thing is aggressively healthy, but good.

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Cheese Plate

Obviously nothing on this plate is real cheese. It’s all flavored nut paste, which sounds terrible but isn’t. The three “cheeses” are a cashew-based truffle, macadamia chevre, and a harissa jack cheddar also made with cashew. Those are fine, but the issue here is that the order only comes with seven Wheat Thins-sized dehydrated flax crackers. There aren’t enough, they’re bland, and they just make us miss the flavor and texture of real Wheat Thins.

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Kung Pao Cauliflower

At some point, fried cauliflower as a meat substitute started popping up everywhere, so it’s not surprising to see it here. The florets are nice and crispy and served with a sesame brittle that’s kind of interesting. If you really like fried cauliflower, order it. But we think you can do better while you’re here.

Barbacoa Taco

This is on the snack section of the menu, and it qualifies: it’s a single taco filled with mushrooms and topped with avocado puree and a pepita cream. It’s not very creative and not worth $5.

Avocado Tikka

Unless you’ve done your due diligence and looked at pictures ahead of time, this will probably disappoint you. It’s literally sliced avocado on a curried yogurt spread, served with some potato bread that’s just not very good.

Basil Sunflower Pesto Flatbread

Honestly, anything at Althea that involves bread should just be skipped, including this. It’s basically a pizza made with pesto sauce and topped with a macadamia ricotta, roasted tomatoes, and onions. The toppings are well-seasoned, but the flatbread is limp and underbaked and just not as much fun to chew as, say, Fruit Roll-Up dumpling wrappers.

Mocha Layer Cake

This isn’t so much a layer cake as it is several pieces of dense and fudgy chocolate. But as long as you realize that’s what you’ll be getting, it’s rich and not too sweet and a perfectly fine choice.

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