Until now, I’ve resisted doing a full review of an uber-fine dining, very expensive restaurant for this column.
Why? Places like Alinea and Next provide rarefied experiences that are difficult to share on paper. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to get a reservation, and once you do, the meals are filled with sleight of hand, ephemeral presentations of ingredients that most people wouldn’t recognize. While without question an amazing experience, it’s more fine dining theater than food that I really want to eat—or write about.
Not so with Grace, the magnificent new restaurant from Chef Curtis Duffy, whom you should remember from his successful stint at Avenues in Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. The two Michelin stars he garnered there were no fluke. This is a world-class dining experience, and make no mistake, it comes at a steep price. But I loved every minute and every morsel of it.
Unassumingly tucked away on the last block of Randolph before the expressway overpass, Grace impresses from the moment you open the door. You won’t mind waiting for your table in the bright, comfortable lounge area where you can enjoy an expertly mixed cocktail from an intriguing list of small batch distillers.
More likely, you will be led immediately to your spacious table in the dining room, surrounded by beautiful black ash woodwork, buttery leather chairs, contemporary light fixtures and compelling modern art. The tables are set with Limoges and Bernardaud china, Studio William of London silverware, Schott-Zweisel stemware, and fine linen. Once seated, your eyes are drawn to the glassed-in kitchen and the phalanx of white-coated, earnest young chefs that staff the kitchen and work in perfect concert.
The server stops at your table, and you have very few choices to make. Grace produces two 9-course menus: Flora, a largely vegetarian selection; and Fauna, which features a plethora of animal proteins. Both menus are priced at $185. If you choose the specially selected wine pairings, it will set you back another $110, but in for a penny, in for a pound (or a few Benjamins).
The meal starts with a large wine barrel stave brought to the table; at each end are perched four amuse-bouche, including a perfect section of Satsuma orange encased in a glassy shell of smoked paprika-infused sugar. One bite captured a plethora of exciting textures and my mouth was, in actuality, quite amused.
To accurately and exhaustively catalogue each course would be difficult, so I’ll give you the highlights. I can’t stop thinking about the “Carrot” course, one of the more beautiful dishes I’ve ever seen. The trusty root vegetable was presented in many forms—caramelized, pureed, shaved, dried and raw—and many varietals, all paired with whipped mascarpone and roasted Iranian pistachios. It was like a carrot symphony. And you won’t miss the protein if you order the Flora menu, because Duffy has found a way to prepare Maitake mushrooms—teamed with potatoes, coffee, red wine, preserved daikon and scallion—that is just loaded with umami and feels substantial.
On the Fauna menu, we were awed by the Scottish Salmon, cooked sous vide until just set, and paired with crispy red cabbage, citrus foam, and marigold petals. Likewise the Veal Cheek entrée, meltingly prepared and arranged in an arc with red-wine braised endive and shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds and black mint jelly. Sumptuous.
Bread service is particularly creative. Very few of the dishes have starch as an element, and if they do, the portion is small. So the breads, which at most restaurants feel superfluous, have meaning here. Each menu is paired with different breads; tiny baguettes, teeny scones, and eensy rolls provide the perfect complement to your meal. And the butter! Swoon. I could write a story on just that alone.
Desserts—and here I should mention that there are three courses of these, followed by yet more unexpected treats—are stunning. The “Young Coconut” presentation was filled with taste and textural wonders, including flavors of lime, huckleberry and African blue basil. And the “Cranberry” dish, which tasted like Scandinavia would if it were a dessert, combined a crispy rye granola with little spheres of cranberry flavor, shaved pine ice and sage. It happened.
Everything about the meal was inviting, including the service. I particularly enjoyed, though, that while we were told in detail about each course as it was served, it was unnecessary to explain to us how to eat the food. We did not have to lean to the left while smelling the aroma with only our right nostril, nor was anything unrecognizable as a food product. When I gasped aloud, as I did more than once, it was the intensity and the absolute rightness of the flavor that surprised me rather than trompe l’oeil shock. So I’m saving my shekels for another visit to Grace. I can’t wait to see what Curtis Duffy has in store for us.
I can sum Grace up in one simple word: perfection.
5/5 stars (A+)
652 W. Randolph St.