This sushi isn’t made from tuna, it’s made from dehydrated watermelon. Planta Queen
River North’s upscale vegan spot will serve sushi made from dehydrated watermelon
Downtown Chicago is full of steakhouses and upscale seafood spots, but a Miami import believes that its vegan fare can take on the competition. Planta Queen will open next week in LYFE Kitchen’s former space near Clark and Hubbard and serve vegan sushi, dumplings, plus Chinese- and Japanese-style noodles. Founder and CEO Steven Salm hopes the fusion menu will win converts to plant-based eating.
“There’s lots of restaurants in the River North area that are successful because they have great food and great service,” Salm says. “We’re ultimately hoping to fall into that same category but just align a little bit more with the guest that’s looking to treat their body and the planet a little bit better.”
Planta Queen falls under a larger umbrella of Planta restaurants that Salm and executive chef David Lee founded in 2016. They now 10 operate locations in New York, Toronto, and Bethesda, Maryland, and more are planned, including a Mexican restaurant in the Big Apple (Toronto already has a Planta Cocina). Salm says he’d been eyeing a Chicago opening since 2019 but the plans were delayed due to the pandemic. If the River North location is successful, Salm says he’d like to expand to Fulton Market.
Planta Queen’s unagi eggplant nigiri.
“There was always this really amazing attraction to the youth and the vibrancy of River North, which still has a very strong office population and residential community,” Salm says. “It really is kind of a unique part of the city that is firing on all cylinders all of the time.”
The Chicago menu will be similar to offerings at Planta Queen’s Toronto and New York locations, with dishes including truffle udon noodles, fried vegetable gyoza, and a spicy “tuna” roll made with dehydrated watermelon. The space features floor-to-ceiling windows to provide plenty of light during the day and naturally shift the vibe at night.
“The evening time will be really moody,” Salm says. “We’ve used a lot of dark woods, oak ceiling, really rich, dark velvety red seating, and banquettes. We’re kind of excited to see all the pieces put together over the next couple weeks because it’s really looking amazing.”
Saim opened a Planta Queen in Manhattan last year, saying the concept suited a more sophisticated diner versus the company’s original Planta restaurant. River North follows the same formula in a downtown market that features few upscale vegan options, most notably Althea from celebrity vegan chef Matthew Kenney. But Planta Queen believes its restaurant’s menu provides versatility.
“Planta can be a place where people have a true dining experience and spend an hour and a half with us, or they could also grab a salad at the bar and be in and out in 15, 20 minutes,” says Salm.
As part of the restaurant’s focus on the environment, ingredients leftover from food preparations find its ways onto the bar menu, where cocktail options include the “Herb Your Enthusiasm” made with Thai chili-infused tequila, Cointreau, lime, and pineapple, and the “Mez-cal Me Maybe” featuring mezcal, ginger liqueur, passionfruit, and lime.
“When we make our ahi watermelon and dehydrate the watermelon, there’s a significant amount of excess watermelon juice which makes its way into our fresh juice program and our sangria program,” Salm said. “Same with coconut water remaining for dishes like a coconut ceviche. The excess jalapeños that are going into one of our sauces will be used to infuse tequila. We’ve always just been very conscious of trying to use all or as close to 100 percent of the product that we’re bringing in house.”
Planta Queen will initially serve lunch and dinner but plans to launch brunch a week later on October 8. It will offer dishes such as cinnamon buns with chai icing and kimchi fried rice along with bottomless seasonal sangria, with summery watermelon giving way to fall flavors like pear and apple. When local fruits dry up in January and February, Planta Queen will serve favorite cocktails from its Florida and California markets to bring a bit of warmth to the winter chill.
The restaurant is also looking for local cold-press partners for its juicing program. Juices and mocktails will be available for dine-in, delivery, and to-go throughout the day. Cold-pressed juices are central to the brand.
Planta chef David Lee and CEO David Salm.
Many of Planta Queen’s locations have rooftop gardens that provide some of the restaurant’s produce, but that’s not an option for this one, which is part of a 30-story residential tower. Instead, Salm says the restaurant is looking into launching community gardens and learning gardens at schools.
“If that’s something that we can work out prior to next spring, then I think it would be a win for us and certainly a win for the community,” Salm says.
Plant-based eating has come a long way since 2016, a trend Salm says is particularly visible at grocery stores which once relegated vegan products to small sections of their organic aisles and now boast huge selections of dairy alternatives. He hopes to win over more people by showing off the versatility of fruits and vegetables.
“Hopefully they leave deciding that eating more plants is actually better,” Salm says. “We’re hoping that a really great restaurant creates a good path for them to start on.”
Planta Queen, 413 N. Clark Street, scheduled for a September 29 opening.