652 W. Randolph St. 312-234-9494
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of 4) Heating up
Some chefs spend their careers working in the upper echelon of fine-dining restaurants, only to throw their hands up and open a burger joint. Curtis Duffy is not one of those chefs.
After working at Charlie Trotter’s, serving as Grant Achatz’s chef de cuisine at Alinea and then garnering awards at The Peninsula Hotel’s restaurant,
Duffy's goal may be straightforward, but describing his food isn't. Luckily, he's coined two different phrases to help. The first is "personality cuisine," as in, what he likes to cook and eat. Among many things, that involves Asian-inspired flavors, giving underrated vegetables a starring role and using herbs to flavor a dish instead of dumping on more sugar or salt. He also calls it "thoughtful progressive," referring to his use of modern cooking techniques to make the most of the best produce, seafood and meats he can track down from farmers and foragers.
The result is two chef's tasting menus ($185 per person, 8-12 courses each), one featuring meat and seafood (called fauna) and the other focused on vegetables (that would be flora). Having snagged an opening weekend reservation a few weeks prior, I enlisted a hungry friend and tried both.
Every dish is picture-perfect.
So go ahead and take one—or ten. Everywhere I looked, diners were snapping photos. That's really the best way to remember the detail of these painstakingly composed plates, from the wave of celery ribbons laced around fried sunchokes to the funky curves of a sculptural piece of white chocolate balancing atop a roasted pumpkin and mandarin orange dessert. Cameras with the flash turned off are welcome; my server even brought out a perfectly sized napkin-cushioned mini-platter to rest it on while I ate.
Bring a buddy who likes to share.
All diners at the table don't have to agree on the same menu, so ordering one of each and swapping plates is smart if you're willing to share. With the meat menu alone, you'll miss out on the bursting-with-flavor heirloom carrots with smooth whipped mascarpone and braised Iranian pistachios, which are so much softer and richer than any store-bought variety of the nut I've ever had. (Seriously, if all pistachios were this good, I'd sign on to do one of those nutty Wonderful Pistachios commercials alongside Snoop Dogg and the Simpsons). Likewise, if you try just the veg menu, you'll miss delicate morsels of Scottish salmon with bright citrus pudding, wisps of crispy red cabbage and three types of clams. Plate-swapping with a friend means you'll be able to taste all 18 of the dishes on Duffy's menu, not to mention the extras at the start and end of the meal: an amuse-bouche and post-dessert bites.
So that's why the herbs are capitalized.
The menu description for each course ends with an herb in all capital letters—a not-so-subtle hint that they play a central but nuanced role. Chives add a bit of salty pep to a bundle of spindly, finger-like maitake mushrooms, and the celery-like flavor of lovage complements the sliced celery and celery seeds served with the aforementioned sunchokes. The care Duffy takes selecting the highest-quality ingredients is obvious throughout but especially in his beef dish, made with the highest grade of wagyu beef imported from Japan. It's as if the phrase "melt in your mouth" was created to describe this and only this. Certain elements did remind me of the drama of Alinea, such as amuse-bouche bites served on a long piece of curved wood, or pine ice scooped onto a dessert from a platter trimmed with pine greens. The most interactive dish is a tangle of raw kampachi, pomelo, cashews, golden trout roe and young coconut, all inside a cylinder of ginger ice that my server instructed me to crack with the back of my spoon.
Now this is service.
During the first Friday open, the staff showed no trace of the jitters and snafus I expect at a brand-new restaurant. The wine program—add wine pairings to the tune of $110—pays plenty of attention to bottles from France's Loire Valley, but our server didn't bristle when we asked for a by-the-glass rec instead. If you're not up for splurging for pairings, do as I did and make the $25 glass of prosecco last the whole meal.
It's OK if you don't love everything.
An open mind is required for a chef's set tasting menu. Most likely, you'll try ingredients you haven't seen before and encounter some dishes you don't love—but hopefully you come out of it full, happy and enlightened overall. Such was my night at Grace. I was more intrigued by the sculptural bowl than the thin winter squash soup that came in it, and my date was turned off by the bits of pungent sardine served with a tender veal cheek dish—though the black grape and black mint added a richness you wouldn't expect from fruit and herbs. Pretty much everyone is going to like a gougere—a traditional French one-bite pastry—filled with cheese. A gougere with smoked banana filling? Love it or hate it, you probably haven't tried it before.
Anybody have a spare stomach?
If you can incorporate stretchy pants into your outfit and still comply with the "cocktail attire" dress code, do it. Here's why: What you can't tell from the menu is that bread pairings are served with four of the courses on both menus. Flaky rosemary focaccia and red wine rolls were seriously tasty, but I couldn't manage more than a bite or two of each for fear that I wouldn't have room for dessert. All the bread is served with house-made herb butter (a nice reinforcement to Duffy's theme) and Amish cow's milk butter, which is quite possibly the best butter I've had in my entire life. Chef Duffy, help a girl out here. If you can't spare another stomach, how about an Amish cow?
Let's talk about the bathrooms.
Grace might be the classiest restaurant in town that has potty talk going on at the table. Four individual bathrooms are inspired by the four seasons, a fact that your tablemates will figure out at some point in the night and gush over upon their return. I ended up in the winter room, with glittery white walls and a countertop that looks like water flowing across an iceberg as you wash your hands in the sink. (I would have peeked in the other three had I not been so closely escorted to and from my table!) Speaking of seasons, Duffy plans to feature four different menus, with tweaks made throughout each season—for example, swapping out peas with fava beans when peas are no longer available.
Bottom line: Grace sure makes a lovely first impression. Duffy really challenged my perception of the impact that vegetables, nuts and herbs can have on a plate. If you love to splurge for a special occasion or are working your way through a bucket list of Chicago's finest restaurants, you best call for your res now.
REPORTERS VISIT RESTAURANTS UNNANOUNCED AND MEALS ARE PAID FOR BY REDEYE. LMARNETT@TRIBUNE.COM | @REDEYEEATDRINK