Vettel: Virtue offers sophisticated take on Southern staples, grounded in history ★★★

Boasting Southern country charm and urban sophistication, Virtue, which opened in November in Hyde Park, is a new restaurant that belongs on your to-visit list, according to food critic Phil Vettel.

Chef and owner Erick Williams, last seen as executive chef at the highly regarded MK restaurant, applies his fine-dining skill set to Southern staples, which is not at all contradictory.

“Through my career — Italian and French predominantly — ingredients overlap. Kale is very close to collard greens, as I did my research, a deeper dive into tradition, became intriguing and inspired," Williams said. "I'm really excited at opportunity to be in Hyde Park, epicenter of one of most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago.”

Blackened catfish provides the peppery punch of blackening spices without being overwhelming, and the fillet is matched to Carolina Gold rice, barbecue-spiced carrots and carrot puree. The pork chop, easily my favorite entree, is cooked just so, and accompanied by a baked apple that's been filled with cider-braised sliced apple and yams. Salmon  gets a brown-sugar glaze, and shares the plate with caramelized brussels sprouts and red peas.

Starting courses are more firmly rooted in Southern tradition. There's a ham platter, the thin-sliced meat accompanied by house-made crackers, pepper jelly  and pickled okra and sweet peppers. Cornmeal-breaded fried green tomatoes are topped with shrimp remoulade, combining two Southern touchstones into a single appetizer.

Cornbread, served with honey butter, will gently satisfy a sweet tooth, while roasted broccoli, with candied pecans, cheddar cheese and bell peppers, is a triumph of assertive and even bitter flavors, expertly modulated.

Desserts lean toward the rustic, but pastry chef Rebecca Pendola also has this gorgeous chocolate cake, served like an upright sandwich filled with chocolate mousse and chocolate crunch over salted caramel sauce.

The dining room is low-key and pretty. Subtle décor touches include ceiling-hung tobacco baskets, and local art such as this painting, inspired by a Langston Hughes photograph.

I give Virtue, 1462 East 53rd Street, three stars. Virtue is not only a very good restaurant, but, given its historical grounding and community immersion, potentially an important one as well.