Perennial Virant | Restaurant review
There are things canning can do. And things it can’t.
Use what you can, can what you can’t.
If I had to guess, I’d say the T-shirts bearing this slogan, which every server at Perennial Virant wears, were the brainchild of Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the restaurateurs who own this restaurant with chef Paul Virant. After all, the servers at Girl & the Goat wear T-shirts with slogans, and hey, it works there, doesn’t it?
Actually, the shirts are as cloying here as they are at G&TG and, more pointedly, they reflect the strange contrast between the atmosphere the room and food suggest, and the vibe the service projects. Which, to break it down, is like this: The room is cool and reserved, the food is mostly elegant and restrained, and the service is awkwardly familiar and hoverish. One night, in the dining room, I counted no fewer than six T-shirted men and women huddled along a wall, ready to pounce on a wineglass the minute it was emptied. During the course of my evening, it seemed almost all of these men and women descended on my table at one point. Half of them asked questions that suggested they were now the table’s server. Almost all of them made odd, unfunny jokes. It was a little disorienting.
But unlike the shirts at G&TG, where corn is always on the menu (i.e., “Please don’t feed the goats—but beer is fine.”), the T-shirts here at PV at least serve a purpose: They’re a primer for those unfamiliar with chef Virant. Virant, who made news in 2005 when he left Chicago proper to open a restaurant,, in Western Springs, is guided, perhaps more than any other chef in the area, by what’s local and in season. He is also an avid canner, which is how in June he is able to offer tomatoes on two triangular polenta cakes. This means he is constantly changing his menu as things come in and out of season (or, seemingly, as his canning jars run dry). My visits to PV were just five days apart, and yet only half of the menu from my first visit existed on my second. That’s a noble project. But just as the restaurant lives and will die by this philosophy, so too do the dishes. And some arrive D.O.A.
The failures here feel like a conceptual problem, as the weakest dishes are the most seasonal. Every week or so, PV changes its three-course prix fixe to offer five of what are supposedly the most seasonal dishes on the menu. One night that meant fresh peas on salmon. Peas are a wonderful thing, and so is salmon, but one piled atop the other constitutes an underwhelming plate of food. Same goes for the brandade, which was formed into pale cakes and fried until mushy. I’m inclined to see these unpolished dishes as the product of the tight schedule on which they’re developed. But who knows? Some of what is on the à la carte menu is equally disappointing, as we’ve seen these dishes a hundred times before. Tender asparagus gets the egg-and-béarnaise treatment, those crispy polenta corn cakes get a puttanesca. That the asparagus came from Green City Market across the street, and that the olives in the puttanesca are cured in-house, are details of interest. But they do little to break up the monotony of the dishes.
Yet just when it seems there is nothing new here, Virant exhibits an unusually keen sense of flavor and restraint. One evening I ate morels in a fascinating fashion: Nestled in milk jam and topped with an oat crumble, the mushrooms took on the flavor of an earthy French toast, the warm sweetness broken by the occasional chive blossom. What kind of chef other than one so connected to his ingredients could come up with such a dish? Likewise, it is Virant’s respect for the rib-eye steaks he sources that makes his beef dish stand out: The steak (a mercifully manageable portion, it should be noted) is sliced and paired with a housemade Worcestershire sauce; a vivid mushroom conserva is on one side, and two slices of PV’s phenomenal housemade bread, fried and golden, are on the other. This is simple food, sure, but it has clearly been fussed over—which is how it came to taste so damn delicious. Virant is adept at making sausage, and his Italian sausage with housemade giardiniera is a robust, manly, aggressively flavorful plate of food. But he is equally adept with gnocchi, turning out ethereal orbs that are elegant vehicles for seasonal vegetables. Bookend these dishes with one of bartender’s cocktails (they’re all good, but particularly the Zephyr) and pastry chef Kady Yon’s creamy nougat with lemon curd, and you’ll find the amazing Paul Virant you’ve always heard about. Bookend it, however, with the greasy kale chips and the tart filled with leathery, wrinkled preserved blueberries, and you’ll find yourself the victim of the restaurant’s inconsistencies.
Is inconsistency just the nature of the beast here? Is it unfair to expect all the food on such a constantly evolving menu to be polished? And anyway, isn’t this the way we’ve been told by the food obsessives to eat if we want to save the environment, ward off disease and keep the local economy strong? Maybe. But just because we can eat this way doesn’t mean we’ll always want to.