(Left: Vie Exterior; Right: Vie Dining Room)
Paul Virant has made a name for himself through his dedication to canning and preserving—his particular contributions in this area are recorded in his cookbook The Preservation Kitchen, which was released earlier this spring. In addition to Vie, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Western Springs, he also has a newer role as the executive chef of Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park. As I had a graduation ceremony earlier in the day, Hyde Park was very congested; dining in the suburbs was therefore quite appealing and I made reservations at Vie with my father for Saturday, June 9.
As one can see from the picture at the top, the restaurant’s exterior is quite understated. The narrow entrance belies just how large the restaurant is—the labyrinthine interior has several small rooms, each decorated with steel-colored chairs and black-and-white photographs on the walls. The small rooms make the space a bit less cohesive although it also makes them more intimate than if there were only one large room. Although the steel tones suggest a cold décor, this was not actually the case since the enthusiasm of the servers established a jovial tone.
The menu was quite large and slightly different from the one listed online. Virant chooses to really foreground his purveyors and there was an amusing “Vie Menu Glossary” at the bottom that detailed some of the ingredients and different farms, all from the Midwest—it was very apparent that Virant doesn’t think in terms of “American” cuisine so much as “Midwestern” cuisine. Most amusing was the glossary description for Q7 (the beef supplier), a farm in Marengo, IL that is “run by old school ranchers on horseback.” There were seven starters, three soup/salad preparations, and seven main dishes. Not listed in detail are 2 tasting menu options, a 5 course and an 8 course; that the tasting menus are not emphasized strongly suggests that Virant probably isn’t focusing on acquiring a second Michelin star. I’m not sure how much of his clientele comes from the city, but it’s likely that making the menu more tasting menu-centric (as Graham Elliot has done recently) would lose him a good percentage of his suburban client base. I also wonder whether a tasting menu focus just isn’t in line with Virant’s sensibility; his new venture, Perennial Virant, is more casual and doesn’t have a tasting menu option. It’s notable that he partnered with the Boka group for Perennial Virant, since the Boka group of restaurants (Boka, Girl and the Goat, Perennial Virant, GT Fish and Oyster, and Balena) epitomizes the upscale-casual pulse of Chicago dining right now—a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily cohere with Michelin’s predilection for more overtly fine dining cuisine. At any rate, our server was very effusive in making recommendations and it was clear that she knew the menu quite well. I settled on the quail as a starter and (per the server’s recommendation) the chicken as a main course, while my dad ordered Vie’s famous burger.
The bread service was somewhat amusing; the bread man wielded a large basket but there was only one offering, a mild-flavored sourdough that was useful for soaking up the sauces in the courses to follow. Unfortunately, the butter was unremarkable and it was a supermarket variety. This was a bit disappointing; given that Virant devotes a chapter of his cookbook to “Jams, Marmalades, Conserves, and Butters,” he really misses out on an opportunity to showcase his skills in this area.
Thankfully, the amuse bouche was more representative of Virant’s skills in pickling and canning: pickled ramp with egg salad. This was pretty intense for an opening bite and it was a great match for my own acidic palette.
While the service was very gregarious, it was a bit less polished than at other Michelin-starred restaurants. The pacing early in the meal was too fast and my first course actually arrived before I’d consumed the amuse bouche. All minor service issues, however, were recuperated by the effusiveness of our server, whose folksy charm made the timing errors much less jarring than in a more upscale, scripted setting. In this sense I was reminded of my 9-course meal at Boka last fall–a similar experience in that my friendly server was passionately committed to providing a great experience, yet there still existed minor errors in description, table setting, etc. In both cases, it didn’t seem as though the servers were careless but rather that they didn’t know any better. I will say, though, that I was glad that we decided against the tasting menu option as I think the endeavor would be a bit daunting for the staff.
The quail was quite large and more or less big enough for a main course. It was prepared with bacon-braised spring onions, black walnuts, Worchestershire vinaigrette, and watercress, and the vinaigrette involved a good deal of Dijon mustard. We both enjoyed the mix of smokiness and acidity and I found this preparation compared favorably to the wood-grilled quail preparation at Fore Street (Portland, ME), which incorporates a fruitier blend of flavors. Virant’s plating style is informed by the bountiful portion size, with the food piled high and a bit cluttered. While it wasn’t especially elegant, there was evident intentionality behind the composition.
After a very short wait, our main courses arrived. The chicken preparation was a half-bird and with its accompaniments it reproduced the colossal proportions of the quail. I was compelled to order it not only because it came recommended by the server but also since it was paired with roasted morel mushrooms, a favorite mushroom variant of mine. Other ingredients included wood-grilled lettuces, pickled beets, roasted chicken jus, and caraway onion puree. This dish reproduced the smoky/acidic dichotomy of the quail preparation, but as this was an a la carte experience I wasn’t attempting to build a wide-ranging trajectory of flavors. Besides, a large percentage of menu items (even the seafood ones) involved this flavor contrast, which seems to be a foundation for Virant’s culinary style.
My father’s burger (sourced from the Midwestern cowboys at Q7 Ranch) was aged for 21 days and topped with Wisconsin cheddar and bacon. There was also wood-grilled asparagus, hard-cooked egg, and caper vinaigrette. Although I didn’t try it, my dad was very enthusiastic about the burger and he especially enjoyed the caper vinaigrette, which was infused with truffle oil. The asparagus was also terrific and the hard-cooked egg was prepared with a vinaigrette that recalled some of the flavors from the amuse bouche. Certainly, the asparagus-egg combination held the balance between smoky/acidic of earlier dishes and nicely integrated the burger dish within the menu. I was curious about whether the kitchen would be able to assimilate the burger within its menu or whether it would just feel like a cursory gesture toward neighborhood patrons, but it was clear that a good deal of thought had gone into it and that ordering the burger still provides a representative “Vie experience.” This was nice to see from a Michelin restaurant and a notable contrast from my lunch at Blackbird last fall, in which the maitre’d inexcusably used the burger on the menu as evidence that the lunch service at Blackbird is not really indicative of the restaurant’s true capabilities.
For dessert, I asked the waitress to select one order of whichever dessert she liked best. In a nice gesture, she sent out an additional complementary dessert, and one of the desserts had a nice message in reference to my graduation. I didn’t take home a copy of the dessert menu and the one online is not up to date, so I don’t know the specifics of either dessert. The one below had two main components: a chocolate pot de crème and a profiterole with local cherries; unfortunately, the two parts never really harmonized. The profiterole/cherry combination was pleasant but I had hoped for a darker chocolate in the pot de crème and it was fairly one-note in flavor.
The other dessert fared much better—it was a sort of deconstructed strawberry shortcake, and the whipped cream was punctuated with chocolate. The sorbet was terrific, filled with chunks of strawberry. Although the chocolate used for the cream in this dessert was not dissimilar to that used in the pot de crème, this was much better harmonized and a case study in how much better the same ingredient is when integrated productively.
The mignardise offering was an intense strawberry pate de fruit.
Vie is well-known for being one of the leading farm-to-table restaurants in the country, yet this meal revealed how farm-to-table is not really a specific cuisine so much as a rubric through which to explore the particular ingredients from different regions. In this manner, farm-to-table also facilitates the displacement of the label of “American” cuisine. Although they are all technically American, the farm-to-table cuisine at Vie is very different from the southern flavors at Husk and McCrady’s, or the New England ones at Maine restaurants like Fore Street or Arrows. For example, where Vie serves walleye pike, McCrady’s prepares triggerfish and Fore Street cooks Casco Bay cod. While I don’t think Vie engages as discursively with other cuisines as McCrady’s or Arrows, Vie certainly showcases an interesting application of Midwestern ingredients.
I think it’s also important to note that a farm-to-table restaurant isn’t just a window onto the “soul” of its particular region since this denies the individuality of the chef. For example, I have read certain writers claim that Sean Brock (chef/owner of McCrady’s and Husk) is revitalizing the soul of Southern cooking, which seems to me to disproportionately privilege the region and deny the particular sensibility of the chef. Chef Virant’s affinity for pickling and grilling makes his style unique, and in this regard Virant is not revealing the personality of the Midwest so much as offering his interpretation of Midwestern ingredients. In this manner, I think an appropriate definition of farm-to-table cuisine is that it’s a discursive interaction between the sensibility of a particular chef and the ingredients of a particular region. Although it probably won’t attract more attention from Michelin unless it focuses more exclusively on its tasting menu, Virant makes expressive use of regional fare and Vie is a valuable contribution to the dialogue centering on farm-to-table cuisine.