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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4471 Lawn Ave.
Western Springs, IL