The case for a better brunch
Critical praise for the gluttonous, strident, restorative culture of a weekend tradition.
By Julia Kramer
Reviews: GT Fish & Oyster, Perennial Virant
THE GOLDEN BOYS: It’s not even fair how many good restaurants Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz own. Here, two more
By Jeff Ruby
(page 1 of 2)
PERENNIAL VIRANT 1800 N. Lincoln Ave.; 312-981-7070
FYI Hey, water guy, cool it with the constant refills.
HOURS Dinner nightly; brunch Sat., Sun.
Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.
The last time I saw Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, they were outside Perennial Virant, talking on their cell phones and to each other. At the same time. Their latest restaurants, Perennial Virant and GT Fish & Oyster, which opened in the span of 49 days, would be impressive enough in their own right; hot on the heels of 2010’s Girl & the Goat, they’re particularly ambitious. I would say it’s like the Beatles releasingRubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper within 18 months, but Boehm and Katz are not the Fab Four in this scenario. They’re George Martin—visionary producers who recognize talent and then provide a framework to capture and nurture it.
The pair is on a magical run right now, one unmatched in Chicago since Jerry Kleiner’s Vivo/Marché/Red Light/Gioco stretch in the nineties. The difference is that Kleiner’s restaurants were first and foremost Kleiner restaurants—curvy, roaring Technicolor circuses—and the chefs, while talented, seemed secondary. Lately, Boehm and Katz, who started with Boka in 2003, have been coming at it from the other direction: Get the right chef and build around him (or her). They’ll use the same formula this fall with Chris Pandel (The Bristol), who will help them make the old Landmark space on Halsted Street into a rustic Italian spot called Balena.
For Paul Virant, it all happened fast. The St. Louis native was busy at his wonderful Vie in Western Springs in February 2011 when he got a call from Boehm. Chef Ryan Poli had just announced his departure from Perennial, and Boehm and Katz wanted to overhaul the whole restaurant with and for Virant. Three months later, it reopened with a slightly different name, Perennial Virant, but as a completely different restaurant—and a damn good one. The renovation, into what my waiter called “farmhouse posh,” was so complete I couldn’t remember the old décor. Light pours in on sleek oak tables, big potted trees, and a wall of canning jars. The abundant staffers, casual and confident in T-shirts and sneakers, are true believers in a kitchen that plays to Virant’s strengths: Americana cooking, pickled stuff, and an uncanny knack for combining sweet and salty.
You’d be confident, too, if you were serving dishes like crispy carnaroli rice logs filled with oozy Brunkow Cheese curds in a spring onion vinaigrette. “Like arancini with some Midwestern cheese curd goodness,” says Virant, and he’s underselling it. His ever-evolving menu includes a $37 three-course prix fixe meal and shareable plates that for once make sense communally (think homemade corn nuts). Slagel Family Farm pork shoulder confit, a delicious pork-cake disk with a browned cap and shreddy innards, gets a boost from a homemade giardiniera of beets, turnips, and onions. You will want to soak up every last drop of rich pork jus with fantastic whole-grain bread that has been baked in a Blodgett triple-deck oven in the basement. You will also fight your tablemates for the astounding Wisconsin morel mushrooms with milk jam, sweet-salty oat crumble, and chive blossoms, and you will win. And while they’re wasting their time with the flat cream of Klug Farm asparagus soup and overly fatty smoked Dietzler Farms beef short ribs, you’ll be polishing off the lovely herb Parisienne gnocchi with spring vegetable ragoût and pesto.
Perennial Virant’s clever cocktails by Matty Eggleston, who made his bones at Hollywood’s Hungry Cat, shine far brighter than the half-cocked desserts, none of which deserve a spot on this sharp menu. In the end, though, everything you need to know about this restaurant is in the six-ounce wheel of soft grilled Camembert with homemade lavash and amazing red wine raspberry jam. It’s nothing flashy: just an intricate gem masquerading as a crowd pleaser. Which is exactly what Boehm and Katz wanted all along.
The Boka Restaurant Group boasts some of the city’s hottest and most talked about restaurants (Girl and the Goat, Boka, GT Fish & Oyster, Landmark, and, previously, Perennial). Mid-winter, despite a constant buzz of activity, Perennial shut its doors to be reworked and re-born Perennial Virant showcasing Chef Paul Virant’s culinary skills. Virant gained a sterling reputation for his use of fresh, seasonal ingredients in contemporary American cuisine as Executive Chef of Vie in Western Springs. Virant and the Boka Group brought this same fresh food focus to Perennial Virant with outstanding results.
The carefully chosen menu options, the expertly mixed drinks, and the transparency, with which each plate is prepared, culminate in an elegant and delicious brunch experience. The menu boasts relatively few entrée items but each is prepared with an eye for perfection. Just steps away from the Green City Market, Perennial Virant seems to embody the very philosophy of farm to table dining—presenting the farm names in which the meat and produce came directly on the menu.
Should you be inspired to go, here are a few suggestions. The salmon panzanella receives a well-balanced seasoning of dill and sits atop a bed of watercress with crisp, thinly sliced bagel chips. For those with a sweet-tooth, the pecan sticky buns are amazingly light but with the delicate, honey sweetness that will send you on a sugar-rush that will fuel the rest of your day. The rosemary shortbread cookies with crème fraiche and strawberries are a must-try and wonderful as a plate to share for the table.
Perennial Virant puts as much thought and care into each glass as they do on each plate. If the rhubarb honey mimosa does not tickle your fancy, enlist the advice of the inventive man behind the bar, Matty Eggleston, who has been nationally recognized for his original alcoholic creations. If you are looking for a twist on a childhood favorite, try the vodka based dreamsicle with fresh juice and cream.
PV offers brunch 10 am to 230 pm Saturday and Sunday. The outdoor space along Lincoln Park is wonderful if the weather agrees but if the lake breeze is too forceful for a casual brunch, tables by the floor to ceiling retractable windows offer the best of both worlds. The trendy yet confortable décor will put you at ease and the food will definitely provide ample conversation pieces.
Chicago Brunch Restaurants Examiner
- 1800 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, 60614-5812
- Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday Dinner: 5-10 p.m. daily
- Official Web Site:
Rating: !!!! (out of 4) Already hot
While every other newbie restaurant seems to be talking the “local, seasonal” talk, Paul Virant has been walking the walk at Vie in southwest suburban Western Springs since 2004. And city foodies haven’t been making the mini-pilgrimage on the Metra for nothing; he does it really, really well.
So well, actually, that it’s a wonder no one has convinced him to open a second restaurant in Chicago proper until now. The Boka Restaurant Group (Boka, Landmark, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster) did just that after their chef at Lincoln Park restaurant Perennial, Ryan Poli, announced he was leaving for Tavernita, opening later this summer in River North. And so Perennial plus Virant equals the new Perennial Virant, which reopened May 18 after a top-to-bottom rehab.
I arrived at Perennial Virant, more casual than the special-occasion worthy Vie, via a quick bus ride from downtown. From the start it’s clear that Virant continues to be local to the core; even the whole-grain bread served at the meal’s start is made with grains from Heritage Farms in Elburn and barley malt from Goose Island here in town. Though the right side of the menu tempts with a slew of shareable plates, I stuck to the left side to see what the $37 three-course meal (called the PV3) would buy.
Every dish manages to … balance flavors perfectly. Virant intends to change the three-course options often based on limited quantities of seasonal produce and meats he can get his hands on. During my dinner, chicken fricassee ($25 or part of the $37 three-course meal) is light but still hearty, with bites of meaty oyster mushrooms, green garlic and shaved bits of turnip. Virant’s well-publicized penchant for pickling shows not just in the dozens of jars lined up on the wall, but in vinegary veggies that provide that punch of acidity to counter rich, smoky flavors, like the sweet onion relish coating potato chunks alongside rich Great Lakes whitefish ($21 or as part of the three-course meal)
I can’t stop thinking about … the pork shoulder confit ($12 alone or part of the $37 meal) with a giardiniera of white turnips, fennel, carrots and radishes. It’s a crabcake-like disc of juicy, tender pork shreds, seared to a satisfying crisp. Also dominating my dinner daydreams is the butter pound cake dessert ($8 alone or part of the $37 meal). Virant borrowed Boka pastry chef Kady Yon from to collaborate on the sweets, and I gobbled up every bite of this Twinkie-hued bar of buttery cake with buttered hickory nuts and toasted milk ice cream (which, in case you’ve never toasted your milk, tastes kind of malty).
You’ll be glad that … the oh-so-pretty, pergola-outfitted patio is still intact, though for now there’s some unfortunate scaffolding intruding on the picturesque park view.
Even if you don’t drink wine … take a look at the bottle list for categories are helpful and fun, from “Liquid Dessert” to “Rhone Rangers” and “From Our Friends in Michigan.” Never-too-sweet cocktails follow the rightfully popular practice of tweaking tried and true classics, from Remember the Maine Forest ($12, like a manhattan but with tea-infused rye) and the Late Spring Daiquiri ($12) with rum, honey and allspice.
I’m already planning a return trip to … dip into the shared-plates sides of the menu. These dishes will also change spontaneously, but Virant hopes a few will become signatures even as the preparations change, such as the Yukon gold potato gnocchi with spring veggie ragout ($17) or crispy Carnaroli rice, a take on arancini with cheese curds ($11).
Just wait until … brunch launches in time for Father’s Day (if this sounds like your dad’s style, make your reservations soon). It’ll likely take on a Southern-inspired “meat and three” format, with your choices of breakfast meats plus sides of eggs, veggies or breads.
My only complaint … is that I still just can’t get on board with the name. It’s clunky. And awkward. I have yet to talk to anyone (correction: anyone not affiliated with the restaurant) who is genuinely crazy about it. The staff has taken to calling it PV for short, which, I’m sorry, sounds like something you should be treating with antibiotics.
Bottom line: In theory, Virant and the Boka crew have created a restaurant that will make you want to come back because the menu will change often. In practice, you’ll be craving return trips because every bite delivers in the deliciousness department.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Food: $37 three-course dinner or shareable plates running $7-$27
Drinks: Signature cocktails cost $12, wines by the glass run $8-$20, American craft beers $5-$21
Crowd: Reflective of the Lincoln Park-meets-Old Town location, from twenties to gray hairs
Service: Casual and smiley, by servers in tees, jeans and sneakers
Must order: Pork confit with spring vegetable giardiniera
Skip: The prix fixe meal’s $9 cheese course supplement. For its small size, I’d put that cash toward another drink.
Lisa Arnett is the Metromix dining producer. firstname.lastname@example.org. She dines anonymously and meals are paid for by Metromix.