One of the stocking stuffers that Santa brought Mrs. Hackknife this past Xmas (and forgive me if I've already mentioned this) was a little deck of cards containing a $10 off coupon for each of 52 different restaurants in the Chicagoland area, many of them fine establishments ripe for us to visit. We used one of the coupons at Vera last month, then continued our way through the "V" section of the deck by reserving a table at Vie Restaurant in Western Springs last evening (should we continue to follow suit, the city's one and only Dutch eatery "Vincent" will be next). Vie has been on our hit list for quite some time, having opened up in 2005 to rave reviews and still going strong after 7 years (even with head chef Paul Virant now helming a second well-respected restaurant - Perennial Virant - in town and recently joining the ranks of cookbook authors with "Preservation Kitchen"). Chef Paul is one of the city's pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, espousing that philosophy long before it became the ubiquitous trend it is today, and has forged strong ties with various Midwest suppliers to ensure that he's getting the best ingredients possible for his creations (you can actually click on highlighted foodstuffs on the website menu to see where they originate, such as rhubarb from Spence Farm).
I had read quite a bit about Chef Paul's exploits (plus those of Chef Nathan Sears, his lieutenant now in command of Vie's kitchen) and was really excited to finally experience his cuisine when we wandered into the restaurant for our 7:45 reservation. Although the decor is a study in gray shades and is relatively muted, the bar and adjoining dining room were abuzz with activity that wasn't readily evident from the quiet downtown Western Springs street on which it's located. We were directed to what my wife referred to as the "be seen" table, the only 2-top plopped seemingly out of place in the middle of main aisle, although we were happy to just roll with whatever extra attention we attracted (indeed, the restaurant's general manager stopped by halfway through the meal and asked if I was the one who had spoken to him on the phone earlier in the day - to secure the VIP seating, I suppose - I think he may have confused us with someone else). After a little peptalk from our "sort-of awesome" server (as Mrs. Hackknife described him at one point), we ordered a round of cocktails, Mrs. Hackknife her usual martini, and I one of the house's signature libations, a Buffalo Trace Bourbon-based manhattan containing brandied cherries and beer jam, a syrup made from reduced stout. I'm not normally a bourbon or manhattan drinker, but this potent potable was fantastic and was a great accompaniment for the duration of my meal.
For an amuse bouche, we were given small plates of tasty whitefish served atop a bed of what appeared to be pickled ramps (I may not be correct about the garnish on this one as my memory is failing me and the dimly-lit room foiled any attempts at photos - I really need to get a phone that has a camera flash). Feeling good so far, our appetizers arrived at the table. Mrs. Hackknife had ordered a dish of fried smelts with trumpet mushroom escabeche (having been to Vera recently, we now know what that preparation means), wood-grilled spring onions, wilted spinach, fried kale, and preserved Meyer lemon, while I dove into my charcuterie plate containing 4 kinds of heavenly house-made cured meats (including lavender salami, bresaola - an air-dried salted beef, and an amazing prosciutto sporting a melt-in-your-mouth ribbon of pork fat), apple preserves, greens with mustard vinaigrette, and about the best damn croutons I'd ever had. Next up, we split a bowl of the cream of green garlic soup, which was studded with chunks of tender chicken and spring vegetables. Our waiter mentioned that this soup was making its first appearance on the menu today and asked for our feedback - we gave him two thumbs way up.
Things got even better with our entrees. Having already had an abundant amount of fish during the week and not in a beef mood, I chose the chef's herb tart topped with chevre goat cheese, spinach, watercress, caramelized onions, green garlic, and roasted garlic vinaigrette, a complete study in spring flavors and textures. Mrs. Hackknife, however, one-upped my plate by getting the lamb combination, a mind-blowing concoction of house-cured crispy lamb bacon mixed with slow-roasted shredded leg of lamb, both piled atop curried fingerling potatoes, smashed spring peas, pickled leeks, and mint lamb jus (washed down with a glass of tempranillo). She kindly let me eat several bites of her dish after professing it "the best lamb she'd ever eaten" and I was nearly inclined to agree, only nitpicking at the slightly overpowering amount of mint. Our waiter explained that they roast the lamb leg over a wood-fired grill for 6 hours, then braise the meat in liquid for another 4 hours, yielding the softest, succulent sheep one could possibly imagine.
Dessert did not disappoint as we began plans to sell our home in the south suburbs so we could be closer to our new friend, the Western Springs roasted lamb and his little buddy, lamb bacon. Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her apple and brown butter tart paired with malted ice cream and a glass of Cotes de Jura dessert wine, while I found myself perfectly sated by my Valhrona chocolate mousse with shortbread cookies and Rocky's Revenge Bourbon Stout syrup. Chefs Virant and Sears clearly demonstrated to us this evening that they're masters of the seasonal ingredient and we can hardly wait to return (just to seal the deal, they even let us keep the $10 off coupon to use again)...