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Perennial Virant gambling on chef’s reputation with mixed results

Perennial Virant’s sockeye salmfillet is served with roasted cauliflower marinated summer squash grilled knob onions. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times Photos

Perennial Virant’s sockeye salmon fillet is served with roasted cauliflower, marinated summer squash and grilled knob onions. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times Photos

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Perennial Virant ★1/2

1800 N. Lincoln; (312) 981-7070;

Hours: Dinner nightly starting at 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Prices: Small plates, $8-$10; medium plates, $10-$17; large plates, $11-$24.

Try: Crispy Carnaroli rice, gnocchi, sockeye salmon, honey nougat glace. (Note: The menu changes frequently.)

In a bite: The “Virant” part of the name connects to chef /partner Paul Virant (Vie in Western Springs). The cuisine is contemporary American with an emphasis on farm-to-table. Comfortable atmosphere, very casual, pleasant buzz, so conversation does not become a shouting match. Wines by the glass are no bargain, but there are more beer brands (on tap, bottles, cans) than wines, anyway, plus a half-dozen specialty cocktails. Service was efficient and had a connection with the kitchen. Not good for children. Reservations recommended

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;

★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;

★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:34AM

A postcard to Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish and Oyster) about Perennial Virant: Tacking the name “Virant” onto “Perennial” just doesn’t make sense. I can understand cashing in on top chef Paul Virant’s name (he blessed with showers of accolades for his restaurant Vie in Western Springs). Was it all about saving money on signage? The banners hanging from the side of the building on North Lincoln still read “Perennial,” which is the restaurant that once occupied this space. Why not just work the brand, and go with, say, Vie 2?

Virant (he is a partner in this new venture) has been a champion of the farm-to-table concept, and he continues to till the culinary soil at this new location with a very ambitious approach relative to frequent menu changes based on what is coming in from the farms. Water to table? Yes, that seems to be the case, too, at PV. For example, “Lake Michigan smelts” show up on the three menus (one from late June, one from early July, and one from July 10) I have in front of me.

Virant is not afraid to name drop about the source of his ingredients. Foodies will recognize Nichols Farm, Slagel Family Farms, Dietzler Farm and Klug Farm. It’s a good thing, this farm-to-table idea, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone took this idea to the next level (a wheeled cart filled with pots of fresh herbs sidles tableside; you select the herbs to go with, say, the Werp Farm lettuces). That is my segue into the fact that PV comes up way short when it comes to using fresh herbs. Was there a flat tire on the farm-to-table truck? Moving on.

The “crispy Carnaroli rice” was a good piece of work, a “small plate” that ate large. The rice (think next-day risotto) was formed into a log and laced together with Brunkow cheese curds, then fried (a version of the Italian dish riso al salto, or crispy rice cake). And with this was a sweet onion vinaigrette along with delectable quarters of pickled yellow tomatoes and “market greens.” All told, a fine example of the ordinary made exceptional.

“We recommend two to three plates per person” was the suggestion of our server as my wife and I looked over the menu of choices under the headings small, medium and large. Be wary of this advice. Portions at PV are generous, so, for example, a “small plate” of smoked sturgeon was more than enough for two to share. The cuts of sturgeon, surrounded by chunks of cucumbers slathered with lemon mayonnaise, rode atop a pair of “new crop potato latke.” The sturgeon was excellent; the latkes were spongy, not crispy. Overall, though, an enjoyable dish.

For a medium plate, I selected “herb Parisienne gnocchi.” Catchy name. Poor execution. Our server noted this as a “signature dish.” No one has to sell me on gnocchi. Would that these had been the best gnocchi I ever treated my mouth to, however. Chunky? Yes. Too doughy? Yes. But I did like the way the dish was “thrown” together with chips of pickled garlic, fava beans, mushrooms and a glaze of “dante sheep’s milk cheese” (a version of the Italian Pecorino Romano). Basically, a no-sauce Italian pasta dish groomed to come off as something exotic. Not great, but not a push-away, either.

I was bothered by the inconsistency at PV (something that did not occur at Vie). The pan-roasted sockeye salmon was terrific, but the smoked Dietzler Farms short ribs were lacking. The salmon, a nice fillet, chunky, perfectly roasted, was surrounded by florets of roasted cauliflower, thin slices of marinated summer squash (excellent) and cuts of grilled knob onions. A glaze of extra-virgin olive oil gave the vegetable a pleasing flavor boost.

As to the short ribs, one issue was the woeful lack of flavor — and would that the ribs had been better trimmed of fat. I could deal with that part, but the “crispy spaetzle” scattered over the ribs were just plain awful. Too small to even get on the tines of a fork, not crispy at all (and why should they be?) and probably some of the worst spaetzle I have come across.

Desserts? PV is trying hard but hardly comes up with anything interesting. The combinations are offbeat and not all that enticing, so it was a Hobson’s choice at best. A slab of butter pound cake? (hello, Entenmann’s). An elemental strawberry tart? The honey nougat glace with Michigan raspberries (bursting with luscious flavor), candied orange and a sable (cookie) was adequate but not amazing.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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