What is Vie Vying for?

When asked by Food & Wine Magazine about his most memorable meal, Paul Virant, Executive Chef of Vie in Western Springs answered “Recently, my wife and I ate at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I have to rank it at the top. Everything was so simple, it was all about the ingredients and the technique. It was kind of a dream.” It makes sense that Chicago’s latest golden boy, who has been touted for his seasonal cuisine, admires Alice Waters, the original pioneer of sustainable agriculture and rustic, no-frills food.

Virant has an impressive resume to say the least; highlights include stints at Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest, and Blackbird. Last year, Virant was named one of the Best New Chefs by Food & Wine. He was Chicago Magazine’s Best New Chef of 2005 and has received 3 stars from Chicago’s culinary Grand Poobah, Phil Vettel. So naturally, if everyone else in the country loves Virant and Vie so much, I should too. Right? Well, I didn’t. There. I said it!

On the night of our reservation, we were prepared for perfection and lingered at the gorgeous, iridescent-flecked marble bar with our cocktails. As we waited for the rest of our party, we took in the simple yet luxurious decor: austere white walls, chandelier sconces, dramatic black and white photographs, and fresh yellow tulips on each table.

Once seated, we were immersed in the eager yet rambling banter of our waiter, who urged us to try the evening’s side special of pommes frites. “They’re served with ricotta cheese and sausage gravy, just like how we like them in Canada,” our server gushed. I was quite confused, and later learned that the pommes frites were actually a variation on the poutine, arguably Canada’s most pervasive contribution to cuisine. I wasn’t convinced-fries and gravy didn’t sound like the most appetizing duo. Nonetheless, we took the risk and ordered both the frites and the wood-grilled shrimp as a starter.

gross-fries-vie.jpg

Unfortunately, my instincts on the frites were on point. The visual appeal was nonexistent: the fries were soggy, the gravy gloopy, the ricotta was cold and incongruous with the other ingredients. The wood-grilled shrimp, served on a bed of frisée with poached garlic, crispy potato, and a fried quail egg was equally unremarkable, but a bit more edible than the fries. The shrimp were tough, the egg was oily and burnt on the edges.

shrimp-vie.jpg

For entrees, my dining companions and I chose the rainbow trout, the sea bass, Gunthrop Farm chicken two ways, and the strip steak. First, a few words about the steak, which was served with toasted barley, marinated cauliflower, mushrooms, and mustard béarnaise. Our waiter assured us that the mustard sauce was a must; without it, the steak just wouldn’t be up to snuff. In retrospect, we should have ordered the sauce on the side.
gross-steak-vie.jpg

Béarnaise is a traditional sauce for steak, and is made of clarified butter and egg yolks flavored with tarragon and shallots, with chervil and tarragon simmered in vinegar to make a reduction. A little béarnaise goes a long way, especially when the intense flavors of mustard and capers overpower the dish, as was unfortunately the case with Vie’s steak.

The Gunthrop Farm chicken was presented two ways: as breaded and fried breast and as chicken sausage pierogis, served with braised house made sauerkraut and pickled red onion jus de poulet. The breast was flattened and dry, chewy and over-salted. The pierogis, although an interesting idea, were poorly executed, rubbery and bland.

chicken-vie.jpg

Our two fish dishes, sea bass and rainbow trout, seemed as though they were conjured up and prepared by two separate chefs. The sea bass was the highlight of the meal: a light, sweet chunk of pan-roasted fish, presented over braised greens and accompanied by a tomato arrabbiata, toasted breadcrumbs, shaved celery and arugula. The flavors were honest and clear à la Chez Panisse and were free of heavy sauces or excess salt.

bass-vie.jpg

The trout was a horse (or fish) of another color. Described as “marinated and wood-grilled rushing waters rainbow trout,” it was served with Wisconsin fingerling potatoes, herb aioli, pickled garlic, shaved radishes and fried “pickles.” The normally mild, nutty flavor of the trout was totally compromised by again, the misuse of salt. Chef Virant, didn’t you watch the first episode of this season’s Top Chef? After seeing poor salt-wielding Chef Nimma pack her knives and go, we should all know that properly seasoning food is at the very base of any dish. It’s a skill often taken for granted in a professional kitchen, but one that can never be overlooked.
trout-vie.jpg

All in all, the experience was highly disappointing. The food lacked the depth of flavor and elegant presentation I’d been expecting of Virant and Vie based on recent accolades, and was instead unsophisticated and prepared in a heavy-handed, sloppy fashion. Hints of brilliance resonated in the sea bass, but one superb dish out of six just doesn’t suffice. Hopefully Virant and Vie will be rejuvenated by the return of farmers’ markets and the new season. Until then, I’m still searching for a true disciple of Chez Panisse in Chicago.

Vie

4471 Lawn Ave.

Western Springs, IL

(708) 246-2082

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3 responses to “What is Vie Vying for?

  1. Glad I didn’t go! I think so much of what you pay for at a supposedly elegant, much-hyped restaurant is the presentation of the dishes. But these dishes almost look like they came straight off the interstate buffet! Great photography on your part, though!

  2. It’s funny, I discovered your site, read your review of Vie and dined at Vie all in the same week! By chance.

    Being in the food industry, I have wanted to eat at Vie for a very long time. Finally, I had that chance a couple of days ago. Of course, I had been reading a lot of hype about it for the past few years.

    All in all, a positive and surprising experience.

    First of all, I don’t know what I missed but it seemed like all the photos of the restaurant led me to believe it was one big open room. Not the case at all. There were a lot of interesting architectural elements to the room. It seemed modern and intimate at the same time.

    Service. Impeccable. Waiters were totally tuned in to the program. Only nit pick–a busboy with too much cologne.

    Wine. Great list with lots of interesting choices. Bonus–Monday nights are half-off bottles night.

    Food. Fresh, seasonal, well seasoned and delicious. You would be hard pressed to find a menu as well written in the city of Chicago. I tried four appetizers, three middle courses, three entrees and three desserts. They were all delicious.

    Bottom line. Meal was expensive. But. Compared to other meals of the same expense, was it worth it? Most definitely. Vie is in a league or a standard of its own. Other restaurants in Chicago (keep in mind this restaurant is not in Chicago) should try to compete with Vie (room, service and food).

    How can they pull it off? The chef is there and has a vested interest in all areas of the operation. As long as the chef is there, his heart will be in it. I’m sorry you had such a negative experience but I’m sure you will give it another try.

    I’m not sure if “presentation” is such an important element of this type of cuisine. Just as presentation is not so important at a place like Chez Panisse. These are places that expect the properly prepared ingredients to speak for themselves. And I also think that your photographs do not truly represent the integrity of the food. Granted, the restaurant is very dimly lit and a flash is essential. Flashes kind of ruin food photography in my opinion.

    Oh well. Sorry, for such a long winded comment.

  3. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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