Wednesday, January 16, 2013

grace - chicago, il
652 w. randolph street
chicago, il 60661

my interest in restaurants is still a relatively new thing. i had my first real fine dining experiences in the year 2010, and to say that i am now totally hooked would be an understatement. over the past two years i have been lucky enough to have dined at most of chicago's notable restaurants along with some of new york and california's finest. however, until very recently, the vast majority of posts on this blog have been on restaurants that have been open for longer than i have been doing this. now that i have been in this game for a few years, i am beginning to anticipate the opening of new restaurants, and i must say it is a very exciting feeling. places like yusho, pastaria, goosefoot, and elizabeth all come to mind as establishments i followed casually via social media prior to their opening, but there is one place in particular that stood high above the others. in fact, i had a huge interest in this restaurant before it even had a name. i am speaking, of course, about chef curtis duffy's restaurant grace.

duffy, whose resume includes time at charlie trotters, a stage at the french laundry, pastry chef at trio, chef de cusine at alinea, and head chef at avenues at the peninsula hotel, came forward with plans to open his own restaurant in the summer of 2011. the announcement of the name grace came months later, and then the teasers began coming at a high rate of speed. most of the information provided was about the building of the physical space, the decor and service ware, and the service style. details on the food were kept from the public until just weeks before the restaurant opened. when the reservation lines finally opened after the restaurants numerous delays, carrie and i had a very brief conversation via text about when we could make it up to chicago, and then proceeded to book our table for mid january.
as mentioned above, the design of the restaurant was a long and well thought out process, with the finished result being truly stunning. the feel inside of grace is decidedly modern, but there is a certain warmth and comfort to the space that reminds you that you are at a restaurant and not an abstract art exhibit. in the months leading up to grace's opening, there was a lot made of the service level chef duffy and his business partner michael muser were hoping to provide. from the moment the front door of the restaurant was opened for us until we were tucked into a cab at the end of the meal, the service we received at grace was exemplary. every staff member was smiling and seemed genuinely friendly, and our captain may have been the best we have ever had, being extremely professional but at the same time very down to earth and easy to talk to. there is no pretension to be found at grace.
grace offers two menus nightly, a flora menu that is vegetable focused and a fauna menu which features seafood and meat. carrie and i both chose the fauna menu but also requested that a specific dish from the flora menu be added to our tasting. wanting the full grace experience, we also decided to partake in the wine parings. i did not keep good enough track of the pairings to make any notes on them here, but i do remember most of the wines being french aside from a german riesling. like every other staff member we encountered, the gentleman handling the wine service was very polished.
first to arrive at the table was a quartet of canapes served on a long segment of a whiskey barrel. starting from the left we have a tangerine candy, a banana gougere, a saffron crisp, and a fourth bite a cannot recall. while each bite was certainly tasty, there wasn't one that had me salivating for another.
osetra caviar - meyer lemon, kumquat jam, chive

this was a solid opener, with the salty brine of the caviar contrasting nicely with the smooth and tangy meyer lemon custard.

nairagi - golden trout roe, pomelo, thai basil

this was definitely the most interesting course of the meal and could certainly be a very polarizing dish for those not used to dining at this level. what we have here is a cylinder of ginger flavored ice containing nairagi (striped marlin), golden trout roe, pomelo (and its rind), and some spices. the base of the bowl was a warm grain of some sort. we were instructed to crack the ice cylinder with the back of our spoon and mix everything together. this was definitely a unique eating experience as each bite was truly different from the last in terms of texture, temperature, and flavor. while i largely enjoyed the dish, i did find a few bites towards the end to be too watery and kind of weird. this dish was reminiscent of duffy's signature king crab dish, but unfortunately fell short for me.

carrot - iranian pistachio, whipped mascarpone, carrot top

so this is the dish from the flora menu we added to our meal, and it honestly may have been the best course of the night. this was orange and purple carrots prepared a couple of different ways plated with a light mascarpone cheese, pistachios, and what i would call a rich pistachio butter. this dish has me wondering if next time around we should do the flora menu...absolutely incredible.
like at avenues, bread at grace is served one piece at a time and is meant to pair with the course it is presented with. i personally do not like this method being used in lieu of a being able to pick from an assortment a few times over the course of the meal. not only does it limit me to only one piece of each type of bread, but i felt like it somewhat disrupted the flow of things for me as i really prefer to consume my bread in between courses. either way, i am not one to complain about excellent bread, and that is certainly what grace is serving. on the top left is an emmanthaler cheese crisp, next to it is a pretzel roll, and directly beneath it is a bread made with beef drippings. finally, the piece on the bottom right is an excellent red wine favorite of the night. for the spreads, we have a salted butter and what i believe was an olive oil emulsion.
warm cucumber - burnt orange, pasilla, peruvian oxalis

although it is not listed on the menu, this course had some emmanthaler cheese in it that to me really added an extra layer of flavor. this dish would have still been stellar without the cheese, but its piquancy shining through the dishes otherwise mild flavors is what i most remember about this course.
scottish salmon - crispy red cabbage, citrus pudding, marigold

this was a solid course, but probably the least memorable of the evening.

grilled wagyu beef - abalone mushroom, salsify, mashua leaf

following the salmon course was an incredibly rich japanese a5 wagyu beef served with a dashi broth on the side for sipping. the meat was perfectly tender and absoultely bursting with flavor, rivaling the callote de boeuf at per se/the french laundry as the best beef i have ever had. between the numerous items on the plate, the dashi broth on the side, and the wine a bread pairings, there was a lot to keep track of with this course, and i am afraid i stressed myself out over thinking when/how to eat/drink what. 
veal cheek - red wine braised endive, green grape, black mint

while i found it a bit strange that the meal's final savory course was another beef preparation, this offering was definitely another success with the cheek being fantastically tender. this course was served with a toothsome red wine bread that was easily the best bread of the meal.

poached quince - elderflower, tamarind juice, bronze fennel

the quince course served as a palate cleanser, and was somewhat reminiscent of applesauce in terms of flavor.
caramelized sudachi - toasted cashew, asian pear, nasturtium

this was probably my favorite of the sweet courses with the caramel base being fantastic.
dark chocolate - raw chesnut, persimmon, lemon mint

the last dessert course was probably the meals best looking course, which really says a lot as all of chef duffy's plates are stunning. like the nairagi at the meal's beginning, this was a study of textures with no two bites being alike. 

passion fruit cake in honor of my upcoming birthday.
popcorn and an exploding chocolate.
pour over coffee prepared at the table using a service piece designed specifically for grace.
i will admit right now that i went into our meal at grace with huge expectations. i loved chef duffy's food at avenues, and was expecting grace to be a big step up in all facets. as far as the space is concerned, grace's modern and luxurious dining room did just that, being a marked improvement over the bland and overly dark space that avenues occupied. the food, on the other hand, did not reach new heights for me. everything was very good, with some dishes being exceptional, but everything from the format of the menu to the presentation of the courses felt very similar to what we were served at avenues. this is certainly not a bad thing, i was just expecting a bit more of a departure from what chef duffy has done in the past. on the whole, i would probably have preferred smaller portions and more courses, as there were a few dishes that the excitement had worn off of by the time i finished. regardless, our meal was certainly a success, and i am definitely expecting to return to grace in a year or so to see how the restaurant progresses. while it may be a bit early to prognosticate a michelin rating, i am going to say that for now grace is a solid two star establishment, and chef duffy is going to need to take things to the next level to attain that elusive third star.
Grace on Urbanspoon

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