I liked the idea of Vie more than I liked the reality when I ate there in early 2008. I went in the dead of winter, hoping to taste deeply of the bounty of their closet full of preserved things (above, as seen in Sky Full of Bacon #5; it’s actually been moved upstairs now, though). I liked the idea of a place so devoted to local eating that it was doing all this canning and building a cuisine around those tastes. That said, I found it nice, well-prepared and skillful, but kind of tamed down for the good burghers of suburban Western Springs, certainly not as adventurous in terms of nose-to-tail eating as John Bubala’s short-lived Baccala or the wonderful spot that would open a few months later, Mado.
But I kept having tastes from Vie, and they kept suggesting a much better place than I felt I had been to. Mike Sula and I had the secret hamburger (made from the sides of artisanal Dietzler beef they were getting in house) and the superbly well-balanced Vie salad, and even though I found the toppings on the burger eccentric, there was no denying that it had a purity of beef flavor that left other hamburgers in the dust. The cotechino (a kind of peasanty fresh sausage with bits of organ meat and skin it) Vie provided to the mulefoot dinner was unquestionably one of my top two dishes from that dinner. And Vie’s take on Southern food for the Green City Market BBQ was maybe my favorite thing there, too, smoked turkey with pickled greens on it that reminded you of a big bowl of collard greens, but dialed up to 11.
Along the way, Vie chef-owner Paul Virant proved to be a friend of, or at least willing participant in, Sky Full of Bacon, in fact he’s appeared in half the videos so far (one accidentally— he was at Green City Market and literally walked through a shot as I was shooting). And cooking things up at the Shedd event-slash-Sky Full of Bacon premiere recently, he put the squeeze on me to come out and eat at his place again. So we invited a couple of other couples and went out there Saturday night.
I don’t know if it’s my perception or the restaurant that has changed more, but there’s nothing timid or suburbanite-safe about Vie as it exists in September 2009. In fact it might be the most radically whole animal-oriented restaurant in the Chicago area, even moreso than Mado, the Bristol, the Publican, anybody. The menu has item after item which takes a turn into organ meats, offal, once-ignored cuts like pork belly— and an older suburban crowd had packed the place and was eating the weird stuff happily (believe me, you know when the table behind you gets a plate of pork belly and smoked pork loin).
It’s easy to see why they trust his kitchen with such stuff— because Virant and his crew are preternaturally good at mining deep flavors from a dish. They can get away with offal because they use it to add complexity and depth to dishes— you don’t taste aggressive liver, you taste an orchestra which includes some earthy bass notes. A lamb “bolognese” had all the brightness of lamb, the funkiness of offal, the comfiness of a warm, nurturing pasta dish with housemade pasta— it was as deeply satisfying as anything I’ve had in years. Yet they do delicate just as well— sturgeon was topped with a fruity root-vegetable slaw that sang of the simple virtues of well-chosen in-season produce. And taste after taste seemed sharpened to its best possible result— earthy cotechino with crisped edges, a supple, eye-opening slice of cured goat loin (!) on “Nathan’s charcuterie plate” (sous chef/charcuterie whiz Nathan Sears, who’s also been in my videos with Paul), the flavor of smoke trailing off a wood-smoked pork loin, a melt in your mouth blue cheese served with local honey, a smooth and concentrated strawberry sorbet (I saw their new ice cream machine, which Nathan said costs as much as a car— “But a car can’t make ice cream.”)
I don’t know enough about the tippy-top of the dining scene to say what the best restaurant in Chicago is; even when I’ve been to such places, I haven’t been enough and recently enough to make a remotely fair judgement. But I do know that as much as I admire what’s happening at the very high end, my soul likes a little funk in the mix, and I find the precious arrangement of things into little cubes to get sterile sometimes, however exquisite it may be. For me, then, in my experience there’s no Chicago restaurant at work right now better than the meal I had last Saturday night, for its dedication to getting the best, richest, most purely satisfying flavor out of the best ingredients. And if you can think of other things a restaurant should be doing first, well, we just have different priorities, I guess.
Dept. of Disclosure: We paid for our meal but the kitchen knew we were there and sent out a couple of extra things, which we enjoyed happily.