Chicago may be considered one of the next great food cities, but it recently lost a bunch of talent to New York.
The co-owners of Virginia’s, which recently opened in the East Village, first met while working at Charlie Trotter’s (chef Christian Ramos went on to become sous chef at Per Se, and Reed Adelson moved to Locanda Verde). And they filled out their team with a number of other Trotter’s alums besides, including Conrad Reddick, former beverage director at Grant Achatz’ Alinea, and pastry chef Lauren Calhoun, who crafted also desserts at Roberta’s.
The joint strength of those resumes has done its job of getting an initial flood of patrons through the door — even the interiors have industry cred; designed by Vinegar Hill House’s Sam Buffa — but what emerges from the kitchen should be more than enough to keep them there long term. Broken down into large plates, small plates and sides, the debut menu is rustic American and almost defiantly wintry; surprising, considering how eager most chefs are to slough off sunchokes and turnips in favor of ramps and fiddlehead ferns. Not that it’s entirely without certain spring-worshipping touches; one of the finest dishes at Virginia’s showcases downy clouds of lightly seared Gnocchi, tossed with fava beans and delicate, honeycombed morels. Perfectly fried Sweetbread nuggets are bombed with English peas and crowned with dramatically coiled pea leaves, and curlicues of smoky grilled cuttlefish come flanked by batons of asparagus, and wisps of verdantly green garlic.
But more often than not, hearty offerings evoke February in the Windy City; Roasted Romanesco is tossed with speck vinaigrette, Grilled Shrimp is paired with Granny Smith apple, and even the ramps that accompany Young Carrots are pickled; a wistful memory of springtime past. And then there’s the Suckling Pig, a hulking, sticky-sweet porcine joint with blistered skin and inch-thick layer of melting fat, slumped over a submissive pile of juice-basted fennel. Rather amusingly, a handful of sliced strawberries occasionally peek out from under the burnished mass of meat; are they an afterthought, or a brief, edible gimme to the season? The dessert selections similarly toe the line between cold and warm weather fare; sure, there’s rhubarb compote on the Raw Honey Panna Cotta, but the dish that most diners can’t seem to help ordering is the amaretti-dusted Chocolate Beet Cake with beet cream, assertively flavored with sugary, ruby roots.
If this is what spring in Chicago tastes like, it’s more than welcome in the East Village.