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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 releasing Rubber 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.
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