Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vie, Western Springs IL

For the last meal of my vacation I volunteered to take my aunt someplace nice – we’d originally planned on Graham Elliot but their seasonal menu change left little to my Aunt’s liking and as such a change was needed. Having been to many of Chicago’s top tables over the past year and hearing glowing reviews of a place called Vie “out in the ‘burbs” I looked into the restaurant only to realize it had very recently been named to Gayot’s Top 40 restaurants in America – a quick look at the weekly rotating menu showed some great items and beautiful desserts, plus if things changed up leaving my Aunt’s limited palate unhappy there was always their much celebrated burger. Reservations made for 7:30pm we figured it would be safe to leave around 6:00 or 6:15 given the rush hour traffic – thankfully we decided on 6:00 and arrived only moments before our scheduled seating.

Driving up to the small building I have to admit I was surprised when we entered to find the restaurant less than 1/4 full – I was also surprised by the extensively modern décor – dark woods and steel aplenty, stark and minimalistic to say the least. Given chef Virant’s pedigree (Blackbird, for one) I guess the design made sense, but given his locavore focus on farm-to-table foods and home-style techniques like pickling and canning I guess I expected something more rustic. Greeted at the door by a young lady we were promptly led back to our table, a small booth/chair two-top in the main dining room, and waited a short while before being greeted by our server – Maureen. Offering cocktails or wine (we declined) and presenting us with the 8x11inch loose leaf-on-clipboard menu we ordered drinks - iced tea for aunt and coffee for myself and perused the menu.

Returning quite rapidly with water we were asked if we were ready to order – literally only three minutes after we received the menu. Thinking this odd I said we were still looking and subsequently watched her (and later Chef Virant) attend to another table that was enjoying a tasting menu…a tasting menu we were never offered and saw no indication of either in-house or on the website. Returning again we attempted to place our orders only to be told the Burger was not available because “the chef doesn’t want to be known as a burger joint so we only make a few every night and they’re already sold out.” Apparently there were lots of things to know about Vie that are not announced, detailed on the menu, or on the website. My aunt somewhat off-put by this fact went back to consulting the menu and to be fair I’d have considered leaving had it not taken so long to get there (not to mention the tolls.) With decisions finally made we placed our orders, though certainly not the things we’d planned on when we consulted the online menu earlier that morning.

After a short period of time our drinks arrived (note, given the ordering difficulties it was already 25 minutes into the meal) and shortly thereafter the nightly amuse arrived featuring cured Trout, Creme Fraiche, and Pickled Cabbage. A tasty albeit safe bite I enjoyed the interplay of the smooth trout and sour crème fraiche with the added vegetal component of the cabbage – it tasted not entirely dissimilar from good coleslaw. In addressing the drinks – the coffee was bold and the nutty accents complimentary to the food while aunt stated her tea was very good.

With our server off helping with the tasting our bread arrived next via a young man who never spoke a word during our stay at Vie. A well prepared whole wheat with sweetness that I believe was derived from honey, a good crumb, and excellent crust I have to say the bread was excellent and the house butter was served in very small pats with a grassy taste and smooth texture that worked well with the bread. While I will note that another serving of bread required prompting (as did my first refill of water) the ancillary servers did an excellent job thereafter in keeping up with our table.

Beginning our appetizers, first for my aunt was perhaps the most “signature” item at Vie outside of the Burger. Titled crispy parisienne gnocchi, black trumpet mushrooms, black truffle butter, pickled and roasted carrots, prairie fruits farm fresh chevre the dish smelled wonderful with the heavy essence of truffle rising from the plate and mingling well with the buttery tones. Thick and plump my aunt had never had pate a choux gnocchi before and was appropriately surprised by the difference from potato gnocchi. Tasting a sampling of the dish I have to say the balance of the dish – sweet carrots versus creamy goat cheese, crispy gnocchi against smooth and earthy mushrooms – worked well but the overall texture of the dumplings was just a tad too gummy for my liking. The truffle butter, however, was marvelous.

Feeling gluttonous I opted for two appetizers – both items I feel compelled to order each time they are offered. While I was a tad put off by them being delivered simultaneously for the simple fact that one would get cool as I consumed the other, I guess I didn’t specify I wanted them coursed out…then again, it is not as though Vie was hurting for tables or in a time crunch, either. Tasting first the coddled yuppie hill farm fresh egg, périgord black truffles, organic crème fraiche, wood-grilled bread dish I have to say I was disappointed. Having had all three of the components multiple times in the past I could taste each ingredient in abundance but the overall effect was somewhat dull – for the first time in a fine dining establishment I actually considered asking for some salt.

Faring much better than the egg was the seared au bon canard foie gras, pistachio blini, cherry and balsamic gastrique, wood-grilled Wisconsin shallots, roasted pistachios – as a matter of fact, it was exemplary. Flawlessly cleaned foie gras – sweet and unctuous to bite – was balanced brilliantly by the nutty blini and tender whole roasted pistachios. Further enhancing the dish and highlighting the smoothness of the foie and blini were crisp and smoky shallots while the whole dish was brought to the front of the tongue by the sweet and acidic cherry vinegar.

Plates collected the Chef made his way from the kitchen again and carried on a lengthy conversation about sourcing local chickens and livestock with the table receiving the tasting – he then stopped by our table and stated “I hope you are enjoying everything – thanks for coming out” before heading back to the kitchen. Shortly thereafter our main courses arrived and much like the foie gras they were both beautiful examples of what a talented chef can do with high quality ingredients.

Beginning first with my aunt’s dish I was excited because I knew there was no way she’d eat a part of it – and it was something I’d earmarked on the menu that morning as a must taste. Not normally one to order “pork” my aunt opted for this dish first because of the lack of the burger and secondly because she loves ham. Arriving as a rustic presentation, Crawford Farm pork combination of porchetta, hearth sausage and tasso ham, braised cranberry beans, golden turnips and pickled ramps, pork jus was a lovely dish full of flavor, spice, and three entirely different tastes of pork. Favoring the lean ham and spicy sausage my aunt passed off the fatty porchetta to myself and – well, let’s just say there aren’t too many things quite as bad for your heart and great for your palate as porchetta following foie gras. Balancing the savory aspects of the pork were flawless beans, crunchy sweet turnips, and acidic first of season ramps.

With aunt ordering the pork I’d originally planned on I decided to try something new and went with the chef’s highly touted seared Hawks Hill Ranch elk tenderloin and crispy elk summer sausage, Ted’s organic cornmeal spaetzle, black trumpet mushrooms, roasted Michigan parsnips, and preserved huckleberries. With an appropriate gamey flavor not unlike that of venison the lean elk was prepared medium and had the texture of pork loin without any sinew or fattiness at all. Balancing the lean loin was a fatty and spicy round of crispy fried sausage that (like the porchetta and pork sauage) left me wondering how my egg dish was so bland when the chef was clearly so talented with salt and spices. Resting beneath the loin and adding an earthiness to the dish were several pan-seared mushrooms and a chewy (and unfortunately somewhat bland) spaetzle while the topping of the dish was a sublime reduction of sweet yet acidic berries and smoky slices of parsnip.

Finishing our mains Maureen returned and after refilling our drinks asked if she could interest us in desserts. Debating making an early exit and heading to Hot Chocolate for dessert we decided to look at the menu and a single option made staying obligatory for my aunt. I too had no trouble finding something that sounded delightful. Beginning first with aunts selection - Baked Butterscotch Pudding, Toasted Walnuts, Whipped Cream, Vanilla Ice Cream I can’t say I was wowed – it was a warm pudding cup – but Aunt was very pleased and that is all that matters.

For myself the choice was “Chocolate Sour Cream Cheesecake, Cocoa Graham Cracker, Candied Klug Farm Sour Cherries, White Chocolate and Cherry Bark, Caramel Sauce” and it proved to be not only a study in chocolate colors, but also a study in the nuances of good chocolate. Creamy and luxurious but mildly sour the cheesecake itself was served as a mound overtop a dark chocolate graham cracker- the combination focusing heavily on the cocoa notes of the dish. Alongside the cake were sweetened sour cherries that tasted divine on their own but moreso served to awaken the fruity tones of the chocolate. Finally, a drizzle of caramel highlighted the cheesecake’s more floral tones and finishing off the dish I ate the bark on its own – the tart cherries highlighted by the smooth white chocolate.

Finishing our desserts we were brought the bill – pricey but not out of line for the quality of the preparation and passion of the ingredient sourcing. Delivered with the bill were two cream puffs that our server described as ethereal – the best she’d ever had…they were good, but I’d not go that far.

In looking back on our meal at Vie I most assuredly say that aside from the egg everything we had was good or great – Chef Virant is clearly a talented man worthy of all his awards and praise. That noted, there is just something about the front of the house at Vie that did not work for me – the room did not fit the food, the service was unpolished (our server really no better than one at Denny’s or Fridays,) and policy such as not offering the tasting and not informing us regarding the burger just seemed out of place for fine dining. Certainly not as impressive as the top tables of downtown Chicago I personally found Vie to be more comparable to Blackbird, though I preferred the later. A good meal, sure, but with all the great chefs, restaurants, and experiences in the greater Chicago area I just can’t see making that trek again.


WaiterGuy said...

Perhaps the reason why you were treated awkwardly at the start of the meal was because you ordered “coffee” to drink. I am by no means in expert on all things culinary, however, I am pretty sure a chef would not want the first thing introduced to your palate to be a strong beverage such as coffee. Just a thought :)

uhockey said...

Odd - I do that at many restaurants and have never had such average service. I personally find coffee to be an excellent palate cleanser - it is consumed between plates, not with the foods - much like one would smell coffee beans between cologne or wine samplings.