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.
* * *
GT Fish & Oyster Giuseppe Tentori smells like fish. In fact, everyone at 531 North Wells Street exudes a maritime tang, which is not meant as an insult but rather a reason for pride. If you’re from the Northeast, you know that briny essence is a sign of something good and true. I came home from my meals at GT Fish & Oyster smelling as if I’d been doing backstrokes in Nantucket Sound, and in a way, I had. With its bustling bar and backslapping dining room, GT captures that salty seaside vibe better than anywhere else in Chicago.
The delicious irony is that it took not an East Coaster but an Italian to do it. Look around the restaurant and you’ll find Giuseppe Tentori’s initials everywhere, from the plates to the jars of homemade hot sauce. Tentori does fine work at Boka, Boehm and Katz’s three-star spot in Lincoln Park, but every nook and cranny of GT (the former Tizi Melloul space) was rebuilt to make him a star. The décor, best described as nautical modern, mixes sailboat paintings, buoy lights, and a massive stuffed tarpon with smart touches like a boomerang-shaped table and an oyster-shucking station. It feels like a cocktail party on a tastefully decorated yacht.
“Do you want me to get some oysters started?” the server asks once you’ve settled in. The staff is smart to push the kusshi from British Columbia and the Fire River from New Brunswick, smaller Canadian varieties packed with clean flavors. From there, the meal goes in familiar but mostly pleasing directions. A clam chowder is chunky with Nueske’s bacon and house-made rosemary oyster crackers, and the spicy tomato sauce with top-notch Prince Edward Island mussels gets the perfect soaker-upper: a long, buttery grilled ciabatta.
You’d expect the lobster roll and mahi tacos to be slam dunks, too, but both disappoint. In fact, GT’s finest dishes are the ones you might normally overlook. The impeccable snapper carpaccio is a beautifully composed tableau sprinkled with pickled ginger, shiso, and hearts of palm, grounded by four deep-fried lotus root wheels. I’ve never been crazy about halibut, all too often the Limbaugh of fish—dense and unyielding—but here it’s a stunner, simply roasted with apples and served between a crisp fried-potato nest and yuzu whipped potatoes. And the showstopping ten-ounce strip loin feels imported from Boka: eight thick, tender slices of Allen Brothers steak with a heap of tongue-popping “puffed mustard,” three colonies of silky mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, and super-rich dollops of black garlic purée.
If there is any rivalry between the Boka Restaurant Group’s newcomers, the folks at GT can feel smug that Kady Yon’s laser-focused desserts, such as the magnificent huckleberry-topped panna cotta cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, are way better than the ones she does for Perennial Virant. The comparisons end there. Other than the gaggle of well-trained servers bursting with personality, you wouldn’t know these two were part of the same family, and that’s the whole point. Boehm and Katz built two very different places to suit two very different chefs. “It’s important,” says Boehm, “not to cannibalize your other restaurants.”