Diner’s Notebook: Vistro serves affordable, kid-friendly ‘locavore’ food

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BY ANTHONY TODD | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Local food advocates and chefs who feature local ingredients often get complaints about high prices. Understandably, if you’re a family on a budget, that $60 grass-finished local steak for two might not look quite so good. Is there a way to dine out, eat the best food and still not break the bank?

Paul Virant thinks so. The Michelin-starred chef at Vie (which just celebrated its 10 year anniversary) has just opened a new restaurant, cheekily called Vistro, which aims to bring local food to a new crowd.

“Having Vie out in this particular area for the last ten years, plus living in the area and getting a sense for what the area still needs, I felt like that was the missing piece to the puzzle,” explained Virant. “I wanted something that has the same integrity that Vie does, and uses a lot of the same sources, but with a casual approach.”

Vistro is sourcing from all the same local farms that Virant uses at Vie, but “I didn’t want it to be a name game,” says Virant. So you might not see it printed on the menu, but he’s serving locally produced meat, dairy and produce. Instead of fancy dishes with swoops, swirls and reductions, Vistro features pizzas, quesadillas, fried chicken, skirt steak and mac & cheese.

Despite the simpler menu, everything is still made in-house. They’re even making their own string cheese, which has a spot on the appetizer menu. For a twist on a barbeque classic, try some fried fermented pickles served with dill and garlic mayonnaise.

It was important to Virant that Vistro be kid-friendly. “A true bistro taps into everybody, has something for everybody. In my experience, from having spent time in France, a bistro is a gathering place for all ages for good food and drink. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Even the cocktail list is child-friendly, if you can believe it. There’s an entire selection of “mocktails,” designed by Vie Bar Manager Bill Anderson. In fact, the cocktail list is all mocktails, to which liquor can be added for adults who want something stronger. Order your child a “That’s My Jam,” made with homemade blackberry jam, fresh lemon, thyme and tonic water – and throw in some Don Q rum for yourself.

“I like the idea of embracing everybody. Let’s get kids a drink other than soda and have them try something new.”

How can Virant possibly make money on a place like this, where the average entrée is less than $20 and appetizers go for as little as $3? Portion control and seasonality. That delicious, grass fed skirt steak, served with mushrooms, fries and vegetables? You’ll be getting about five ounces, rather than a monster steakhouse portion.

“I’m kind of a believer in other components and other garnishes on the plate being the showcase, rather than the protein,” explained Virant. “Our protein sizes have decreased over the years at Vie and at Perennial Virant. The focus is on the other accompaniments. Not to preach, but to diversify their diet and eat a little less meat.”

By using and preserving ingredients at the height of the season (when quality is best and prices are lowest) Virant hopes to be able to keep prices reasonable. “Heirloom tomatoes at the peek of the season, we can pay $2 to $2.50 a pound. If you’re buying that stuff from California, I can’t imagine it’s any less.”

Vistro has been open for just over a month, and is already popular. When you make the trip out to Hinsdale, be sure to call ahead for reservations.

Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.

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