Long before it became de rigueur for Chicago chefs to list farmers’ names on their menus, Paul Virant was giving shout-outs to his Midwestern purveyors.
Since 2004, Virant has celebrated small, local farmers at Vie, his farm-to-table eatery in sleepy suburban Western Springs. And he racked up scads of awards and tons of accolades for his seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, all the while seeming to steer clear of the 312 restaurant scene.
So it was major foodie news when this admirably down-to-earth celebrity chef agreed to head the Boka Restaurant Group’s Perennial. The invitation followed Ryan Poli’s announcement last winter that he was leaving the popular Lincoln Park eatery to preside over the soon-to-open Tavernita.
Virant was coincidentally looking to open an urban restaurant when the Boka Restaurant Group offered to make him chef-partner and rename the Lincoln Park restaurant Perennial Virant, he says.
“The timing was there,” says Virant, who took over this spring after the restaurant underwent a redesign.
Currently, Virant’s splitting his time — 75 percent at Perennial Virant, 25 percent at Vie — between the two upscale eateries.
“Now the Chicago area has two restaurants that really stay true to what they’re talking about and what they do,” says Virant, who literally pops across the street to shop at Chicago’s Green City Market.
His mission at both eateries is “to really try and capture and showcase Midwestern farmers, artisans and cheese makers.
“The philosophy of the food is the same, but with the menu here [at Perennial Virant] being distinctly different.”
Unlike Vie’s traditional appetizer-salad/soup-entrée menu, Perennial Virant offers small, medium and large plates. Virant finds this structure freeing.
“It’s fun. There aren’t really any rules. You just have to keep [the dishes] within the size categories.”
Virant has long appreciated fresh, farm-grown produce. As a child growing up in St. Louis, Virant and his family made Sunday visits to a rural oasis known as Gumbo Flats, where they purchased fruits and vegetables.
“I can remember my parents getting excited about asparagus,” says Virant, whose grandparents were also avid cooks and gardeners.
Perennial Virant’s motto is “eat what you can, and can what you can’t,” as the chef is dedicated to canning foods “at the peak of their flavor.”
“We preserve for the off-season,” says Virant, who stores his house-canned goods in the restaurant’s basement and displays them on shelves in the dining room.
His dishes often feature such delights as hand-crafted preserves and pickled produce, which are then mixed with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
On a visit with our new friends The Judge and his popular wife, The Connector, we started with a selection of small and medium plates. (Please keep in mind that Virant changes his menu frequently, so what we ate may no longer be available during your visit.)
Warm and creamy summer bean casserole ($9) was an upscale take on the ‘60s classic. But freshly roasted beans stood in for Great Giant canned ones. And Campbell’s mushroom soap and Durkee onions were nowhere to be found, instead replaced by Capriko cheese, La Quercia prosciutto, sweet peppers, button mushrooms and home-fried onions.
Roasted sweet corn ($11) was a “can’t miss” with me since it featured so many things I love — (Heritage Prairie Farm) tomatoes, sheep’s milk feta and crunchy fresh cucumbers. The late-summer salad was perfectly married with a light roasted garlic vinaigrette.
Virant describes his cuisine as “New American.” “Our country is such a melting pot with cultural influences from all over the world,” but “our menu, at the core, has a Midwestern feel to it,” he says.
Indeed, as Italian-style Yukon gold potato gnocchi ($14) was served as a comforting broccoli-cheese church picnic casserole. Once again, top-quality fresh ingredients stood in for store-bought ones. The dish combined Nichols broccoli, Nordic Creamery smoked cheddar, smoked ham and crème fraiche.
We also sampled the beef short rib epigram ($11), which is best described as a barbecued beef short rib cake. The crisp and flaky “cake” was served with peppery cabbage slaw and Virant’s canned sweet pepper aigre-doux.
From there we moved on to a trio of large plates. The Judge had his heart set on Howling Hounds Farm fried chicken ($19). Virant does a very straightforward interpretation of traditional buttermilk-battered chicken, but dresses it up with creamy stone-ground grits, pickled chow chow relish and tomatoes provençale.
The Connector selected butter knife-tender Gunthorp Farms duck breast ($17). Served with Italian greens, Mick Klug Farm grapes, nasturtium leaves, almonds and citrus vinaigrette, the dish was an ode to summer’s end. (The Connector, not surprisingly, is acquainted with Virant’s grape grower.)
The Husband’s crispy Great Lakes walleyed pike ($21) was, well, crispy and lake fresh. Accompaniments included smoked tomato vinaigrette, arugula, a tangy-sweet buttermilk mayo and crumbly cornbread hush puppies.
I would have been content with any — and all — of pastry chef Elissa Narrow’s sweets (all $8).
But we settled on tangy, airy Prairie Fruits Farm chèvre fritters with tart house-made blueberry jam and Virant’s own sweet and sticky beehive honey, as well as a cozy cookie assortment that included such favorites as blondies, thumbprints and pecan diamonds.
As our meal concluded, we decided that the restaurant, under Virant’s watchful eye, could become a perennial favorite.
1800 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60614