Paul Virant during the quickfire challenge between Chris Pandel and himself at Perennial Virant, July 25. I posted a slideshow and recap at Grub Street Chicago.
Next is fascinating, perfectionist, imaginative and eye-opening— and, ultimately, a kind of cul-de-sac; nobody really thinks that Parisian dining from 1906 will spread nationwide. It’s a fantasy dining experience with a necessarily short life. But because Next and Grant Achatz are daring and endlessly fascinating, the restaurants that represent where dining is really going right now are pushed out of the limelight, half overlooked even in the best of cases. Paul Virant opening a restaurant on the doorstep of the Green City Market, returning to the city to do battle with the best chefs in town after years singlehandedly putting some place called Western Springs on the map, could have been one of the great stories of the year. Instead it’s— oh what, Paul Virant’s cooking fresh vegetables and artisanal meats? That’s nice. Have to check that out some— HOLY CRAP NEXT JUST RELEASED TWELVE MORE TABLES ON FACEBOOK!
I feel almost alone in my belief that the most exciting news about a name chef opening a new place in 2011 has always been Perennial Virant. As much as that other food may dazzle in its ingenuity, represent the pinnacle of a kind of competitive perfectionism, the food that speaks to my soul is the food that makes comparatively simple use of the best ingredients. As I wrote reviewing Vie a couple of years ago, “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.” I often feel there’s a disparity in what I want from fine dining and low end food— fine dining is intellectual, sometimes to the point of seeming bloodless, low end food makes your soul sing. Vie does a better job than anywhere of bridging that gap— not just applying haute skills to homey dishes, but using homey products, all that stuff he pickles and preserves and cures, in a way that has the complexity and sophistication of haute cuisine. I love fine dining, and I love barbecue and diner food and stuff like that, but best of all… I love not having to choose between their respective pleasures in the same meal.
Yet the first reports I heard on Perennial Virant, from people I give all due respect to, were not all that good. So I didn’t rush to try it immediately, hoping that a little time would help it find its footing. I went earlier this week for a PR event, a cookoff between Virant and Chris Pandel of The Bristol (who is also, like Virant, being pulled into the orbit of the Boka Group). While there I ran into LTHer Crazy C and her husband, and wound up joining them for dinner. Charlotte (that’s what the C is for) was back for the third or fourth time since the restaurant opened, and she had no doubts about the caliber of what Virant is doing here— even as she was dismayed by that day’s news of the departure of Boka Group pastry chef Kady Yon for the Public Hotel, home to The Pump Room.
The menu, maddeningly, is divided into small, medium and large, though it was hard to see, either in price or the actual dishes, any particular difference between medium or large. We didn’t worry about it and instead focused on what we knew were Virant’s strengths. A silky pork pate had its fattiness precision-cut by the sweetness of Virant’s housemade strawberry jam. Something called Ted’s Cornmeal Cake— Ted’s Cornmeal is apparently sold by Three Sisters at the Green City Market— combined crumbly cornmeal and gooey burrata into a dish that seemed like decadence on a farm in Iowa. A robustly smokey lamb andouille sausage was combined with small shrimp and cabbage cooked in a complexly flavorful broth. Gnocchi were too soft, almost mashed-potatoey for me, but a dish of smoked short ribs with pickled onions and spaetzle was terrific, like if barbecue had a baby by a German soldier.
Before dinner I told Kevin Boehm that one of the things I liked about GT Fish & Oyster was that it was priced, and had an atmosphere, where everything didn’t have to be perfect to make you happy. I’m not sure any restaurateur ever quite hears something like that as a compliment, but when everyone’s raving about a restaurant where you have to slam the computer keys to get in at all, and price and expectations are high enough that anything below perfection will disappoint, something about the relaxation of fine dining has gone out the window. And what I liked about GT is also one of the things I liked about Perennial Virant— I felt I could come back here next week, have a bunch of new things, and be just as happy with what I had that night. There’s no pressure on me as a diner to love it or else; the love for great ingredients at Perennial Virant is generous, unconditional love.
Disclosure: I was a media guest at the Quickfire, and chatted with both Virant and Kevin Boehm at different points in the evening, but paid for my entire dinner.