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Sunchokes with braised mustard seeds

Full of Grace

by Lisa Shames | Photo: Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | April 2, 2013

What kind of restaurant do you open if you’re a fine dining trained chef who’s worked at some of Chicago’s top temples of haute cuisine, including Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea and Avenues? Well, if you’re like most chefs these days, you’d open a laid-back spot with exposed light bulbs, reclaimed wood, T-shirt-clad servers and rustic, farm-to-table food with nary a tablecloth in sight.

But that wasn’t the case for Curtis Duffy, who opted instead to stick with what he knows best and earns praise for—including two Michelin stars while at Avenues—and opened Grace this past December. “I still have a lot to give to this city, and to prove to myself as a professional,” said Duffy in an interview about opening an upscale restaurant. “In this economy, it might be smart to do something on the lower end, but if you’re not taking risks then how do you know how great you can become?”

And take risks he does at the 64-seat West Loop restaurant. Dining options are limited to just two: an eight- to 12-course menu spotlighting vegetables (“Flora”) or seafood and meat (“Fauna”). Cell phone use in the dining room is a no-no and cocktail attire is suggested. No-flash photography, though, is permitted (a folded napkin, a makeshift resting place for your camera or phone, is quickly brought to the table by one of the dark-suit-attired servers). And while Grace’s web site doesn’t feel the need to list prices, at $185 a person—add in 110 bucks or so for wine pairings, plus tax and tip—I can’t ignore them. To say Grace isn’t for everyone is an understatement. But for those willing to forgo jeans and Twitter for an evening and who aren’t put off by its price tag, Grace offers plenty of rewards.

The dining room with its muted tones of beige and gray may lack that initial wow factor, but its understated modern elegance grows on you as the night progresses. Besides, with a majority of the chairs at the 17 tables turned toward the glass window in front of the huge open kitchen and its army of chefs (outnumbering diners on my visit), and the parade of stunningly beautiful dishes that’ll soon be in front of you, who needs any more eye candy? (Speaking of, Duffy is the tall, closely cropped dark-haired chef you’ll see moving about the oh-so-clean and quiet kitchen.)

Think Grace sounds stiff? Just wait until the amuse-bouche arrives, which features four one-bite wonders—including a Satsuma orange section with a crunchy sugar bruléed crust—on a curved thin strip of wood that had a former life as a bourbon-aging barrel. This dish not only sets a playful tone, but one that’s rooted in nature rather than the molecular gastronomy Duffy became known for while at Avenues.

But that doesn’t mean Duffy doesn’t throw out a culinary trick here and there. The nairagi (striped marlin), a parfait of sorts served with golden trout roe, tart pomelo and Thai basil, the second course from the Fauna menu (my dining companion and I got one of each menu, but I’m told you could also swap around some of the dishes between the two) comes in an ice glass meant to be broken with your spoon. Fun and delicious.

And the coconut “puffs” in one of the three terrific desserts from pastry chef Bobby Schaffer, definitely a chef to keep your eye on, get their fluffy yet crispy texture from liquid nitrogen.

But it’s the dishes that seem the simplest—I know, a relative term here—that keep haunting me. And I mean that in a good way.

Take, for instance, the carrot dish from the Flora menu. Duffy coaxes so much flavor out of the root vegetable, you’d swear they were a different beast altogether (the quenelle of whipped mascarpone, though, was a wee bit thick for my taste). Root vegetables, this time sunchokes, are the main component of another dish that tops my favorite list. Deep fried so they’re crispy on the outside yet creamy on the inside, the nuggets of sunflower tuber are plated in a wreath-like pattern with ribbons of celery, freekeh, braised mustard seeds, and a sprinkling of microgreens and tiny flowers. Yes, Duffy and his nimble-fingered crew have tweezers and they’re not afraid to use them.

It’s not just the vegetable-focused dishes that stand out here though. Grilled Matsusaka beef, considered by many to be the best meat—luxurious ingredients abound here, including generous amounts of osetra caviar in one dish and Perigord truffles in another—is super tender yet still has a flavorful crust. The accompanying pearls of tart finger lime are a nice contrast to the meat’s richness, while the king trumpet mushrooms and accompanying cup of dashi broth add an earthiness to the dish.

As expected at a restaurant of this caliber, there’s an extensive wine list. But rather than thumb through the leather-bound ‘novel’ and coupled with the complexity of the food, the pairing option from GM/partner Michael Muser, who worked with Duffy at Avenues, is the way to go. I was especially smitten with the ’92 Balthasar Ress “Oestricher Doosberg” Riesling Auslese paired with the carrot course as well as the nairagi.

Regrets? I had a few. The bread pairings, while delicious, might be superfluous (and this is coming from a bread fanatic). Plus, I would’ve loved to have had the wine pairing list in front of me during the meal (although it is given to you, along with the menu, in a lovely envelope when you leave). And what is up with the bathroom faucets? Both my dining companion and I were perplexed on how to turn them on (tip: lift the lever up, which in retrospect sounds easy but wasn’t at the time).

While I don’t consider myself a fan of tasting menus—the time! the money! the calories!—I do appreciate them when done right. “Prix fixe tells a story,” Duffy has said. “We want to engage you and give you something to think about.” To that I say, mission accomplished.

652 W. Randolph St., 312.234.9494
Open for dinner Tue.-Sat.
Tasting menus $185
Wine pairing $110

Food for Thought
Two things you’ll never find on Grace’s menu: shrimp and green peppers. Duffy is allergic to the first and doesn’t care for the second. “If you don’t like the ingredients you’re cooking with the passion won’t be there,” he says.

Dear John
Duffy’s seasonal mentality isn’t just found on the plates; each of four unisex restrooms is decorated differently to represent the four seasons.

Kid’s Play
For Duffy ideas can be found in a variety of places, including when he’s hanging out with his young daughters, Eden and Ava (check out their drawings on the kitchen bulletin board). “Toys can be an inspiration,” he says. “If you can put yourself in a child’s mind, there’s no filter at all.”