Vie Restaurant

Monday, March 31, 2008

Executive Chef Paul Virant


Westward Ho! Find Joie de Vivre at Vie

By Ethel Gofen, Dame de la Chaîne

Of the many great Chaîne dinners I’d like to repeat, our feast at Vie on March 31 in suburban Western Springs is at the top of my list. Chef/owner Paul Virant demonstrated his culinary ideals of seasonality, local production, and in-house pickling and preserving by producing a succession of beautiful and palate-thrilling courses. He featured foods from the best Midwestern purveyors: goat cheese (Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL), foie gras (Au Bon Canard Foie Gras from Caledonia, MN), rainbow trout (Rushing Waters Fisheries in Palmyra, WI), ramps (Spence Farm in Fairbury, IL), and rabbit (The Gunthorp’s Farm in La Grange, IN), to name just a few, but also brought in shrimp from Belize and beef from Painted Hills Natural Beef, Inc. in Fossil, OR. The in-house pickled and preserved ingredients—-pickled garlic, house-cured olives, preserved heirloom crab apples, house-made tomato jam, pickled ramps—-were piquant accompaniments for the natural flavors of the courses they enhanced. The foie gras mousse starter and the foie gras ice cream finale (an homage to Le Pigeon Restaurant in Portland, OR) were pure heaven for Chicagoans, whose city council has determined that Chicago restaurants are forbidden to sell foie gras.

Paul Virant is fiercely loyal to artisan farmers who help him best to fulfill his motto: “tastes of the season preserved.”  Rushing Waters Fisheries, Wisconsin’s largest trout farm, for example, shuns chemicals, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives. The Spence Farm, a small family enterprise in Fairbury, Illinois, is famous among chefs for its mid-March great ramp harvest, when hordes of chefs and local enthusiasts gather to root out these pungent wild leeks that gave Chicago its name. Chef Virant pickles some of his precious supply to capture the peak flavor of this season for year-long enjoyment.  Buying rabbit from The Gunthorp’s Farm reflects a preference for safe and natural grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles.  Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, Illinois features locally-produced, organic and flavorful fruit and sustainably produced cheese using milk only from Nubian and La Mancha goats raised on locally produced high quality hay and pasture.  Its philosophy is typical of the best artisan farmers:  “Besides producing and selling our products, our goals are to promote and build locally based food systems. We strive to educate our community about organic and sustainable agriculture and the connections between food production and consumption.” 

While suburbanites drove to Western Springs, the city members boarded a bus and enjoyed champagne en route. Once in the handsome black and white space of Vie, with its black-and-white photographs and crystal sconces, everyone shared the delights of chèvre and herb gougères, shrimp with smoked paprika and house-cured olives, and the delicate foie gras mousse, all accompanied by Champagne, Duval-Leroy Brut NV.

Chevalier Ron Katz gave a welcoming toast lauding our country’s freedom, our good friends in the Chaîne and our guests. The six-course dinner began with trout escabeche with sorrel, pickled ramps, and three types of crisp radishes. These pure and intense flavors were well matched by Sauvignon Blanc, Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” Marlborough 2006. Next, tiny escargots served with poached halibut cheeks and pickled garlic in an aromatic broth joined a Meursault, Bouchard Pere & Fils “Les Clous” 2004. A memorable creation of Gunthorp Farm rabbit sausage “Crepinette” with black trumpet mushrooms was accompanied by the equally impressive Meursault Rouge, Domaine Jacques Prieur Clos de Mazeray 1996.  On to the most succulent wood grilled beef strip loin, crispy bone marrow dumpling and braised shallots in red wine sauce, a course nicely matched with Bordeaux, Château Gruaud-Larose St. Julien 1989.

The River’s Edge chèvre with smoked almonds and house-made tomato jam called for a complementary Australian Shiraz, Kaesler “The Bogan” Barossa Valley 2004. Finally, the divine Au Bon Canard foie gras, profiteroles, and caramel sauce—-ice cream “L’hommage au Restaurant ‘Le Pigeon’”—-was washed down with Monbazillac, Château Septy 1998. Vice-Conseiller Culinaire David Danielson and Vice-Echanson/Caviste Simeon Y. Roldan offered commentary on the food and wine, respectively. We thanked Chef Virant and his staff, adding our accolades to those of Food & Wine Magazine, Jean Banchet,, Chicago magazine, and others and vowed to return soon and often to this magnificent culinary destination.