Crispy carnaroli rice with Brunkow cheese
Crispy carnaroli rice with Brunkow cheese Credit: Eric Futran

If you’ve ever popped a piece of hot, baked Brunkow cheese off the grill and into your mouth at the Green City Market, you might recognize the provenance of the crispy carnaroli rice at Perennial Virant, across the street. Part risotto, part grilled cheese sandwich, the dish packs Brunkow cheese curds between slabs of plump, creamy rice, and then fries the package till the cheese oozes from under the golden crust. Dressed with a smudge of pickled yellow tomatoes, it’s mild and comforting and what I’d want to eat on any late night when tamales are scarce. And as a hallmark dish for a restaurant trading in the currency of seasonal produce, it can be read as a sly wink to the potential of localism once you tear yourself away from the kale.

Under the management of the Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster), the reinvented Perennial is intended as a central-city showcase for the farm-to-table philosophy chef Paul Virant pioneered at his award-winning Vie, in Western Springs. And, true to that discipline, the creative menu changes daily; between my first visit and a second two days later, fully a third of the dishes had been swapped out. But while the details of the menu vary, the principles remain the same: clean, (mostly) unadulterated fresh vegetables, seafood, and meats paired—or triangulated—with the house pickles and preserves that are Virant’s culinary calling card.

In many cases this kitchen math adds up to much more than the sum of component parts, as in a rich rabbit confit. A disk of unctuous shredded meat served over slightly bitter braised Swiss chard with accents of pickled beet and rhubarb, each forkful produced a perfect chord of flavor. Similarly, the tender beef loin with mushroom conserva, while hewing close to the “medium” side of “medium-rare,” was a satisfying anchor to the meal—and was elevated to something remarkable by the addition of grilled house-made bread bristling with nuts and seeds.

Simpler dishes like a bowl of fresh spring peas topped with shaved Parmesan and tossed with tufted pea shoots and just enough warm bacon vinaigrette—or its later menu replacement of roasted carrots and peas in the pod with feta—were such storybook expressions of a pastoral spring you could practically hear the farmer whistling in the background. And pillowy Yukon Gold gnocchi, swabbed with potent pistachio pesto and buried under a fresh vegetable “ragout” of asparagus, peas, carrots, and fennel, was an explosively flavorful showstopper.

But while the purity of fresh, quality ingredients carried these dishes, the practice of trusting flavors to stand on their own was the downfall of others, because if it’s not there in the first place, there’s not much left to work with. Pan-seared pike paired with smashed potatoes, porcini mushrooms, and pickled green garlic, for example, was lovely to look at but so meek in the mouth as to be forgettable. And, well, “beer jam glazed” chicken wings just failed: a half-dozen bald little wings, unpleasantly slimy and drenched in a sickly sweet sauce.

Drinks and dessertswere a mixed bag. Vie’s signature pound cake with malted vanilla ice cream makes a strong showing, and a panna cotta topped with puffed rye, crispy sage, and cherries that had been steeped in Templeton Rye and then smoked, was about as edgy as dessert can get, though the shallow mason jar it was served in foiled any attempt at scooping the creamy remainders from its corners. But a strawberry tart on almond pastry was frustratingly dry. And while Matty Eggleston’s Big Brass Bed—Lillet Blanc and upstart Cocchi Aperitivo Americano with dry vermouth, lemon, and soda—was refreshing, the mai tai, made with pistachio orgeat, hit almost toothache sweet. Still, the smoky daquiri, made with porcini-mushroom-infused rum, was like nothing I’d ever tried. While I’m still sorting out whether that’s a win or a fail, it’s undeniably memorable.

The room’s a study in rustic minimalism, all clean lines of soft wood and dusty pastels set off by servers in plaid shirts and lightbulbs in still more mason jars. Intended as the casual sibling to dressier Vie, Perennial Virant is comfortable and welcoming—at least until you do the other sort of restaurant math. Because while it’s one thing to honor the true costs of sustainable farming in theory, it’s quite another when staring down a $17 plate of scallops. Nicely seared and paired with a vibrant carrot puree and a tangle of fresh watercress, they were delicious. Both of them. But I can’t say I’d try them again if I were footing the bill.

At $9 a pop, though, fried rice and Wisconsin cheese may be a locavore indulgence with sturdy legs.