Jill Marcus and Karen Teed's sophisticated new vegetarian restaurant, Fern: Flavors from the Garden, has been doing brisk business since opening in October. The space exudes the kind of well-worn earthy charm we've come to expect from Marcus and Teed. Unfinished wood table tops are set with forged utensils, artichoke salt and peppers, and mason jars with plant cuttings. Above, a collection of mason jars dangle with Edison light bulbs reminiscent of fireflies in the Southern backyard.
Currently, the dining area is dollhouse small with only 44 seats, but Marcus says they are expanding into their neighboring Something Classic catering space, which will double the size of the dining room.
The walls are green, of course, and the back wall boosts a large fern wall filled with a collection of these ancient plants. Fern, however, is more than a plant here. Marcus was nicknamed Fern by her husband: "He says I have a calming spirit just like my ferns."
For customers, the menu offers chakra juices chosen for the body: passion, desire, purpose, balance, expansion, intuition and bliss.
In the kitchen is Chef Alyssa Gorelick, a graduate of the Art Institute and formerly on the kitchen crew at Halcyon, Marcus and Teed's other restaurant. Fern's menu is designed to take advantage of the seasons and thus will change frequently. Although the all-day menu is vegetarian, the majority of the entrée dishes are vegan — and not cold, raw vegan. These are warmly comforting dishes. In all, the menu is small and easy to navigate. Wines are organic, and beer and spirits are available as well, although many just imbibe the complementary cucumber-flavored water or tea.
Although the starter list is called "small plates," these dishes are not small. Instead, a refreshingly unrestrained quantity and quality appear. The Indian Taco is large enough for many to share. ("Indian" is used here, but they mean Native American: Fry bread is a food from the reservations.) This dish exceeds expectations with a puffy bread base layered with bean and squash chili, tomatoes and chopped onions, and smoothed with shredded cheddar.
It may be the catering instinct, but Marcus and Teed have a knack for making everything on the menu sound good while the kitchen makes everything smell good. The Three Sisters Cake starter arrives heavily scented of roasted corn and summer evenings. The Envious Artichoke boosts an interior of spinach and roasted garlic.
Entrees, ranging from $10 to $14, are similarly well thought out and designed. The farro is flecked with tender nuggets of mild mushrooms and tofu with caramelized fennel. The OM burger patty is weighty yet moist with a mix of ground white beans, hemp seeds and tofu, then gloriously topped with a fennel and smoked tomato chow chow.
One of the strong points at Fern is the dessert. A carrot cake is gluten-free. An excellent stout chocolate sauce is studded with still warm doughnuts. A warm apple tart is spiked with smoothing slices of semifreddo speckled with fruit.
I'm not a vegetarian, and you don't need to be one to enjoy Fern — this is not your father's vegetarian restaurant, or like the one near your college campus. Fern is a restaurant that happens to be vegetarian, offering fanciful dishes that are fresh and local, set in a relaxing atmosphere. The result is undeniably calming, salutary and, quite possibly, good for you.