Monday, March 11, 2013
It’s All About Grace
On March 11, 2013, 60 Chicago Chaîne members experienced the elegant culinary artistry showcased at Grace, the three-month old restaurant led by Chef-Owner Curtis Duffy and his partner, General Manager Michael Muser. Grace has been garnering 4-star reviews for its “thoughtfully progressive” cuisine represented in two menus—one celebrating vegetables (“Flora”) and the other proteins (“Fauna”).
The special menu assembled for our evening included dishes from both menus paired with amazing wines from our Chaîne cellar. Judging by our evening, grace has indeed found a home at this extraordinary addition to the world of refined dining.
Eighteenth century Renaissance man Friedrich Schiller wrote “Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.” Chef Duffy has passionately embraced this philosophy on his quest to create the best restaurant in the world. Free from the limitations imposed by his last venture (Avenues, the now shuttered Michelin two-star restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel), Chef Duffy and his team transformed industrial space into a beautiful modern dining room. This is more than pretty food served in a pretty place; the honey-colored veneers on the walls, impossibly comfortable beige leather chairs and oversized tables draped in thick taupe
tablecloths create an oasis of calm and order that works its charm on the most frazzled city diners. The effect is enhanced by the view of the expansive white kitchen, seen through a large picture window.
Whereas in some restaurants the view to the kitchen is anything but tranquil, at no point during service did Chef Duffy’s kitchen team ever appear to be stressed or pressured. To the contrary, the multiple white jackets moving calmly through their paces behind the glass added to the overall feeling that at this restaurant, grace also means composure and quiet confidence. The same feeling extended to the table
service, where the knowledgeable servers were friendly and approachable, but also polished and quietly professional as they assured that food, wine and water glided serenely to the tables.
Members and guests started the evening in the small reception room where they were greeted with a glass of Champagne (Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru 1999) before being guided to one of the dining room’s sixteen tables. This sparkler, produced by a small grower in the Côtes des Blancs region, exhibited impressive depth and balance. It was the perfect “on ramp” to the evening, both delicate and substantial, exhibiting subtle citrus and white floral fragrances, understated brioche and nutty notes, yet standing tall with a strong mineral spine and lively bubbles.
After guests were escorted to their tables in a staggered seating, a quartet of single bite canapés appeared on a long, freshly charred barrel stave. The fruit-based progression included a gougère with a smoky banana filling and a crispy disk of saffron and black lime, but the highlight was saved for last: a Satsuma orange supreme enveloped in a caramelized coating infused with smoked paprika that made for a refreshing, slightly crunchy bite that awoke the palate.
Our canapés and the two subsequent courses were paired with an interesting Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, one of the Loire Valley’s most easterly appellationsand perhaps its most prestigious. The intriguing Edmond Vatan Clos La Néore 2003 showcased tropical fruit flavors and an underlying salty minerality. The wine was excellent with the first three offerings, evolving in the glass over time and pairing well with the diverse flavor profiles.
Our first course was a Meyer lemon panna cotta with a bitter kumquat jam, delicate seaweed, a generous dollop of briny Osetra caviar and CHIVE (on the menu, each course has a micro-green that shouts to be noticed in ALL CAPS, the Chef’s acknowledgement that considerable thought has been given to the color, flavor and placement of each herb; they aren’t just tossed on the dish as a garnish.)
Our next course involved an interactive sculptural interpretation of sashimi: coconut rice pudding, golden trout roe, nairagi (commonly known as striped marlin), candied pomelo and pomelo segments and Thai basil were enveloped by a thin sleeve of ginger-flavored ice. Diners then shattered the ice with their spoons, mixing the delicate shards with the rest of the dish, each exciting bite evoking the fresh taste of the sea. Perhaps this dish best personified Grace’s commitment to sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, emphasizing flavor first with modernist techniques playing a strong supporting role.
Our exploration of seafood continued with a silky salmon that was cooked sous vide and accompanied by crispy Napa and Savoy cabbages, potato, mushroom emulsion, a tapioca chip flavored with beet, Meyer lemon foam and bright orange marigold petals. This stunningly beautiful visual composition was paired with an impressive Northern Rhone valley wine, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc 2000. This rich, golden blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne grapes exploded with nutty aromatics and citrus, apricot, floral and stone flavors on the palate.
From the “Flora” menu we enjoyed a dish that incorporated butter-poached cucumber, burnt orange broth, idiazàbal cheese (a pressed Basque cheese made from unpasteurized sheep milk), tapioca chips, and Peruvian oxalis. This course captured an exciting balance between some familiar ingredients and intriguing new flavors and textures.
We progressed to our first meat course, a grilled dry-aged ribeye medallion with king trumpet mushrooms, three preparations of salsify root (pureed, roasted and dried) and mashua leaf (a South American plant related to nasturtium). The beef was accompanied by a separate cup of dashi, a traditional Japanese stock made from kombu and katsuobushi that elevated the umami character of this course. The lean ribeye was paired with the oenophilic highlight of the evening, Mommessin Clos de Tart Grand Cru Monopole 1990. This knockout pinot noir was still youthful, exhibiting bright red fruits on the nose and palate, along with the velvety mouth feel
and long finish found in the finest Burgundy.
An unexpected treat from Grace’s “Flora” menu arrived next, the acclaimed chestnut course—pureed chestnuts transformed into a thick pudding using roasted almond milk that supported slivers of salted black truffle meringue, Perigord black truffles and red sorrel leaves. Many remarked that this decadently rich creation was the best vegetarian dish they had ever experienced.
Our final savory course of the evening was a tantalizingly tender veal cheek with red-wine braised endive, compressed green grape disks, a small pool of liquefied anchovy and black mint that was texturally balanced by a crunchy sunflower seed “risotto” and a single tempura-battered white anchovy. This offering paired brilliantly with a superb Bordeaux, Château Leoville Las Cases 1985. Having been decanted for several hours, this well-aged beauty exhibited a classic nose of leather, mushrooms and tobacco with beautifully balanced fruit and silky tannins.
Next, came a series of picture-perfect desserts from Kendall College grad, Pastry Chef Bobby Schaffer. First, a server carrying a tray trimmed with evergreens spooned pine-flavored ice on a petite dish of sweet crumbled rye crisps topped with several lightly poached cranberries, icy cranberry pearls, toasted meringue and sage. This refreshing wintry palate cleanser was followed by our fruit dessert that took us to sunnier places: a composed crescent of young coconut flesh noodles and coconut water gelee, several nuggets of basil-infused sponge cake and a scoop of bright green basil sorbet, tiny pickled huckleberries, dots of lime gel and African blue basil. Finally, we enjoyed a bold sculptural dessert that incorporated wisps of bitter dark chocolate, razor-thin dried persimmons, ground raw chestnut and vanilla crème fraîche. The ingredients managed to converge harmoniously, and each bite showcased a different nuance of the myriad components.
What better to pair with a diverse range of desserts than a beautiful Sauternes? The Clos Haute Peyraguey 2001 was a powerful sticky wine with good acidity and richness that exhibited lovely ripe tropical fruits with layers of honey, hazelnuts and vanilla. As we finished our last sips of Sauternes, the mignardises arrived: one plate held a chocolate truffle dusted with popcorn powder and filled with a burst of liquefied caramel popcorn, encircled by crunchy caramel popcorn; and the second offered up two dark chocolate bonbons filled with flavorful kaffir lime cream.
Towards the end of the evening, GM Michael Muser introduced some of the rising stars in Grace’s kitchen, including Chef de Cuisine Nick Romero and Pastry Chef Bobby Schaffer, and then Chef Duffy himself. Although service was continuing due to the staggered seatings, the kitchen staff stood calmly to receive their applause, with no anxious glances back to their posts. Bailli Jane Tracy thanked the entire Grace team for a magical dining experience and presented Chef Curtis commemorative Chaîne plate. Caviste Mon Roldan then awarded GM Michael Muser with a bottle of the incredible Clos de Tart and a decanter to share with the superb staff, including Captain Amy Cordell and many others.
Bailli Jane Tracy and Caviste Mon Roldan had been faced with the daunting task of digging deep into the Chaîne’s cellar to select wines that demonstrated respect for Chef Duffy’s high culinary art and the dizzying complexity his cuisine. Members and guests toasted their successful selection of wines, which exhibited personality and flexible versatility on the palate and succeeded in heightening the beauty of each dish by praising the ingredients. Certainly, the vision described in their Wine Notes had been realized: “There is an enjoyment as an organization—rather than as individuals—dining together at an exclusive restaurant such as Grace, appreciating the geometric abstractions on the plate and the nuances and flavors from the bottle with like-minded enthusiasts.”
Chef Duffy has inked Schiller’s eloquent definition of “grace” on his forearm as a constant reminder of the raison d’être of this restaurant. recently nominated for a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” Award. Freedom in Chef Duffy’s kitchen is fostering the creation of exquisite culinary forms and flavors, served in a room designed and managed with a clear loyalty to the partners’ vision. The result is a truly beautiful dining experience. As the name implies, it’s all about Grace.
The Chicago Chapter of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs has a wonderful opportunity to experience
this most coveted and much awaited new restaurant that aims to elevate the art of refined dining
to new heights.
This week’s recent article by Phil Vettel in the Chicago Tribune comes at a perfect time. A four star review by Chicago’s leading food critic can only enhance our Chaîne invitation.
The hallowed kitchen - where Chef Duffy’s “culinary army” silently glides from side to side, back and forth with concentration and precision - sets the pulse racing thanks in large part to the unremittingly high standards constantly striven for by those in charge. Efficient but warm Dining Room service, overseen by Partner and General Manager Michael Muser, adds another component to the professionalism and symphony of GRACE.
Seating will be staggered due to the complexity of the menu and its perfectionism on the plate. Small groups will be seated every 15 minutes. Each group will wait in the small seating area at the front of the restaurant. You will be individually advised of your arrival time.
A considerable part of this dinner’s attraction resides in the mystery of its conception and we can look forward to the shared enthusiasm with like-minded friends that only the Chaîne can bring in such a world class setting.