You know the gnocchi are good when the woman sitting next to you turns to her husband and says to him, “These gnocchi are nothing like yours! These are actually very good!!”
And, all this time, she thought she hated gnocchi.
To kick off my birthday weekend in Chicago, I (finally) made it out to Western Springs to experience a full meal at the hands of Paul Virant. I was first smitten by Virant at a charity dinner I attended in Chicago in 2005. Among the many lauded chefs and dishes they each cooked, his amuse bouche – a sliver of smoked sturgeon topped with fennel, pickled asparagus, and a sprig of fresh dill – was a highlight. It was served with a perfectly-cooked round of fingerling potato sauced with caviar and cream.
Since then, I vowed to make it out to Vie.
It took me three years, but I’m happy to say that I finally made it on a happy occasion: four friends and I converged and reunited (hadn’t seen each other in quite a while) on the excuse of my thirtieth birthday.
Western Springs is a quaint little town. It looks like it could make for an adorable day of window shopping. From the outside, one would never guess that inside the unassuming brick building on Lawn Avenue just a block from the Metra tracks is a chic industrial, yet elegant greyscale restaurant. Black and white never looked so good together.
The chef was kind enough to give us a sample of his repertoire with an eight-course tasting menu paired with seven wines. The progression went like this (you can see all of the photos from this dinner on my Flickr set):
Amuse Bouche: Brandade with local San Marzano tomato jam.
1st Course: Spanish Olive Oil-Poached Blackfin Tuna (house-made morcilla sausage, Miner’s lettuce, pickled peppers and smoked paprika), paired with Gramona, Cava, Gran Cuvee, 2004 (Spain)
2nd Course: Ricotta Gnocchi (pan-roasted oyster mushrooms, werp farms sorrel, sweet butter), paired with Monchof, Robert Eymael, Estate Riesling, Mosel, 2006 (Germany)
3rd Course: Pan-Seared Lemon Sole (wilted stinging nettles, roasted baby artichokes, spring garlic, chervil sauce), paired with Catena, Chardonnay, Mendoza, 2006 (Argentina)
4th Course: Spring Green Salad (house-made pancetta vinaigrette, Concord grape mostarda, preserved grapes, pine nuts, shaved Magic Mountain cheese), paired with Mas de Gourgonnier, Rose, 2006 (Les Baux de Provence).
5th Course: Pan-Fried Quail (leeks, preserved Michigan cherries, thyme, Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre), paired with Rutz Cellars, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Cuvee, 2006 (California).
6th Course: New Zealand Venison Combination (seared leg and house-smoked strip loin, wild rice, preserved chestnuts and blueberries, brown butter, fried sunchokes), paired with Langmeil, Blacksmith Cabernet, Barossa Valley, 2005 (Australia).
7th Course: White wine sorbet.
8th Course: Bittersweet Chocolate Marquise (pistachio creme anglaise, candied pistachios, house preserved strawberries), paired with NV Niepoort. (Ruby Porto, Portugal)
Mignardises: Coconut pate de fruit.
Although, it was not my favorite, I’m fairly certain that the party consensus for the all-around best course of the evening was the quail. Indeed, it was very good – a perfect storm of flavors.
Chef Virant is a master of pickling and preserving. He’s equally (if not more) adept at using pickled/preserved products in his cooking.
In the quail dish, preserved Michigan cherries provided the perfect splash of unexpected sweetness to the mostly savory composition. I cannot stress how magnificent these cherries were: meaty, sweet, and slightly-syruped, they affected an exciting balance with the quail, which was smoky, savory, and succulent (the pan-fried skin still crisp despite being gently sauced). The richness of the dish was cut through with a blanketing of softened goat cheese, whose creamy tang and chalkiness played well against the silky strands of leeks.
Pickled strawberries all but saved a rather ho-hum bittersweet chocolate marquis. I mean, who knew salty-sour berries would go so well with chocolate? Well, chocolate and ruby port, that is. The combination of flavors was simply astounding. But, I’m sure, Chef Virant (and/or his pastry chef) knew exactly what they were doing.
Likewise, preserved grapes and a nose-tickling Concord grape mostarda enlivened an otherwise rather ordinary (and, sadly, slightly over-salted) spring salad with toasted pine nuts and shaved Magic Mountain cheese.
Oh, and that’s the other fun thing about Chef Virant’s menu. There’s a glossary for it. Well, more like a key that unlocks the whimsical, often confusing, provenances of the ingredients, like “Spring Valley Farm caramel lady finger popcorn” (I need to visit a farm that grows caramel lady finger popcorn!!), that pepper the menu. Of course, if you read the glossary, you’d know that the dairy in the caramel is from Spring Valley Farm and that “lady finger” is the popcorn’s grower – not a new confectionary Italian hybrid strand of maize (gosh darnit). That sorrel was from Werp Farms, the micro lettuce in our first course was “Miner’s,” and the goat cheese on the quail came by way of Prairie Fruits Farm.
Virant is a dedicated locavore. But, not freakishly so. After all, he did serve us New Zealand venison.
And, the black fin tuna (yes, black, not blue), which was my favorite course, certainly didn’t come from Lake Michigan (actually, it can only be found in the western Atlantic coastline).
Perfectly poached in olive oil and pretty in pink, the warm, ethereally silky slices of tuna were anointed with what was probably the most successful paprika treatment I’ve ever had (I tend to find chefs taking an unwarranted heavy hand with paprika for my taste). The smoky, slightly sweet, pepper spice was checked by tart pickled peppers and meaty, salty (house-made) morcilla. (House-made morcilla!!) Paired with a dry cava, this dish was a wonderful symphony of Spanish flavors and sensibilities.
When he’s not using pickled/preserved products, Chef Virant finds other ways of achieving dynamism.
Take the gnocchi, for example. The impossibly fluffy ricotta-bound pillows; supple, velvety oyster mushrooms; and sweet butter broth – all with a soft rounded flavor – were bracketed, convincingly by bracing, sharp sorrel.
The venison was smoked with a mix of woods, predominantly by maple, which imparted a particularly dark and bitter perfume. What on its own might be an overly-aggressive infusion of smoke was cleverly tamed with wild rice enrobed with a rich, sweet blueberry sauce studded with roasted chestnuts.
Our server wasn’t the most approachable person. In fact, his manner seemed a tad rough to us at the start. However, as the meal progressed, it became clear that he wasn’t affecting offense, and we slowly warmed up to his demeanor. He ended up being a most informative and helpful addition to our experience.
Pacing throughout the meal was seamless. Wine pairings (brought from the bar, already poured, which I found odd) and the appropriate silverware arrived like clockwork, with dishes following at intuitively appropriate intervals.
Being the piglet (and ice cream fiend) that I am, I couldn’t help but notice a trio of ice creams on the a la carte dessert menu. The flavors were too intriguing for me to pass over. From the five tempting options, I choose horchata, candied fennel, and crème de cassis.
Without a doubt, the candied fennel was my favorite. There were bits of chewy candied fennel throughout the scoop; it reminded me of buying candied fennel at the candy stores in France. The horchata, sadly, was a major disappointment – it tasted like sweet cream – no flavor, whatsoever. The interesting thing is that it was rather dark – I expected a discernible hit of cinnamon. Nothing.
The crème de cassis ice cream was equally as tasteless until after I let it sit and warm a little – then the crème de cassis really came through, and it was beautiful.
What was even more beautiful, however, was an extra cornmeal doughnut dessert one of my friends ordered from the a la carte dessert menu. This was a truly amazing dessert. By themselves, the cornmeal doughnuts (more like a doughnut holes) were rather forgettable – they had a nice sturdy crumb, but otherwise, lacked character. Yet, Chef Virant saves the day with a touch of tang – buttermilk ice cream. Together with buttery, crunchy caramel popcorn, the composition was magically transformed into something truly extraordinary.
I can’t say that Vie was a life-changing experience. However, I think that the meal has grown on me in the days since. The execution, overall, was truly rather flawless. The one aspect of Virant’s cooking that will stay with me, particularly, is his use of pickling and preserving.
Just as I was polishing up this post (can’t you tell it’s highly polished?), I received word that Chef Virant is one of the five finalist nominees for this year’s James Beard Best Chef Great Lakes awards. Congratulations, Chef Virant! Best of luck in New York in June!
4471 Lawn Avenue
Western Springs, Illinois 60558