Best New Restaurants

From a French-Asian stunner to a veggie revelation—new restaurants shaking up the scene. How many have you tried?

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Q&A with Best Chef Paul Virant of Vie

BEST NEW CHEF: Paul Virant of Vie

Paul Virant, 35, a St. Louis native, has worked in some great restaurants-Everest, Blackbird, and Ambria, to name a few-and now that he’s ventured out on his own at Vie, in Western Springs, he’s officially become the past year’s brightest new star.

Q. How did you get interested in “cheffing"?
A. I grew up on a farm, not a working farm, but in a family where food was very important. We always sat down for dinner. We always had a big garden, so I understood the importance of seasonality. Kids like to blame their parents-and I blame my parents for my job.

Q. What was your early training like?

A. I started working in an upscale place in St. Louis, late in high school: Malmaison. I majored in nutrition at West Virginia Wesleyan College to get the food science background and then went to CIA [the Culinary Institute of America].

Q. After working at Blackbird, how did you end up in Western Springs?
A. I lived in Ukrainian Village, but my wife is a doctor and she took a job in Downers Grove, sowe moved to the western suburbs. I learned that Western Springs was small and charming, and they were looking for a restaurant to have a liquor license. They had been dry since Prohibition. I liked the idea of being the first.

Q. How would you categorize your food?
A. Western European–inspired seasonal American. I see influences from all the different chefs I’ve worked with. I have an affinity toward sauerkraut-braised meats. Acidity and pickled items are a big part of our food.

Q. For example?
A. We just put choucroute on the menu. We made sauerkraut from local vegetables-a traditional one with cabbage, and we did some with rutabaga and turnips from Henry’s Farm, in [Congerville,] Illinois. We prepare it like sauerkraut and serve it with Lake Superior whitefish that we poach in duck confit fat.

Q. What “foodie” things do you particularly enjoy doing at Vie?
A. I’m proud of preserving things that we use a couple of months down the road. We made a bunch of pickled beets from Kinnikinnick Farms [in Caledonia, Illinois] that we used as a garnish on a borscht. We just received 50 pounds of Meyer lemons from a friend’s tree in Santa Cruz [California], and I’ve preserved those for an asparagus soup in late May.

Q. What is best about owning your own restaurant?
A. Just being able to finally do exactly what I want. One of the ex–sous-chefs from Blackbird turned Paul Kahan and me on to a guy who has a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse and he sends us all sorts of microgreens every week. And I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to call him up and order stuff.
–Penny Pollack


Best of the Best
Best Restaurant: Le Lan
Best Chef: Paul Virant
Best Dish: De Cero’s shareable taco platter

Godzilla rolls
flatiron steaks
Roscoe Village
Sardinian wines
cooking schools
raw food
wasabi mashed potatoes
Gold Coast
pinot grigio

Loftiest Goal
Chuck Hamburg, partner in the tie-dyed pizza joint Flourchild’s, on their business plan: “We want to do for pizza what Ben & Jerry’s did for ice cream.”
(185 Milwaukee Ave., Lincolnshire; 847-478-9600).

Most Surprising Closings
Fuse, Saiko, Papagus, and Biggs.

Most Euro Cheese Shop
Pastoral, an “attitude-free zone” packed with salumi, sausage, pâté, and American farmhouse cheeses.
(2945 N. Broadway; 773-472-4781)

Most Versatile Chef
Shawn McClain conquered seafood at Spring and vegetables at Green Zebra. Now he’s going after meat at the Custom House, due to open this summer.
(500 S. Dearborn St.).

Most International Staff
The crew from Lincoln Square’s Essence of India, who hail from Brazil, Morocco, Bulgaria, Nepal, and Mexico.
(4601 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-506-9343)

Spiciest New Burger
The Southwestern Sizzle burger at Sizzle, a half-pound beast with beef and chorizo chopped up together.
(6157 N. Broadway; 773-465-9500)

Quickest Morph
While you were sleeping, MK North, a contemporary American charmer, became A Milano, a contemporary Italian charmer.
(305 Happ Rd., Northfield; 847-716-6500).

Most Disappointing New NYC Import
China Grill, a glitzy, overpriced spot in the Hard Rock Hotel that has made more of a dribble than a splash.
(230 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-334-6700)

Two high-profile restaurants that are the current box-office buzz around town did not open in time for consideration in this feature: Blue Water Grill (520 N. Dearborn St.; 312-777-1400), the spinoff of a Manhattan celeb magnet in the old Spago space, and Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-0110), Grant Achatz’s ambitious foray into micromanaged 30-course meals.