Address: 652 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661
Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $241
Courses: (9 main/15 total) 1 amuse / 4 bread / 6 savory / 3 dessert / 1 mignardises
Price/Main Course: $27
Dining Time: 133 minutes
Time/Course (total): 9 minutes
- Chef: Curtis Duffy (ex: Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Alinea, Avenues)
- In own words: “intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor.” 
- Style: Avant-garde New American
- Michelin Stars: 2
I knew almost nothing about Grace when I stepped in. I only knew that in the year that they were open since December 2011, Grace has had a meteoric rise, garnering two Michelin stars immediately. This is the restaurant that Chicago expects to be its newest 3-star Michelin restaurant.
Some people have called it “Chicago’s per se”. I think that is a mistake. The dissimilarities with per se are much more striking than the similarities. Firstly, the plating of food. The plating at per se is a style one might call classical, putting the main ingredients front and centre. The plating style at Grace eschews that to put the ingredients by the side; in two piles; even three dimensionally (see the Alaskan king crab). The plating has more in common with the chaos on view at Schwa. Secondly and more substantially on the flavours, make no mistake – Grace is exciting. Licorice, in particular, played a part in 4-5 dishes across the 18 we tried across both Flora and Fauna menus. It was not uncommon to have up to 15 different ingredients in one dish, as the kitchen strived for a very precise effect. Some touches, with the onion in the perigord truffle custard, were sensational and subtle. This paradox – baroque of taste and minimalist of plate – is what drives Grace forward.
As a diner, you have a choice between two menus. The Flora and the Fauna menu. The Fauna has the better mains. The Flora has (slightly) better desserts. Beware though: if you’re accustomed to having meat in some measure on your menus, you will likely be dissatisfied with Flora mains, which are much more intellectual-exercise than delicious-plate (a problem I had with vegetarian Kajitsu in New York as well). Strangely, the Flora menu isn’t vegetarian by default, I guess some animal products still find its way into the sauces. Most people, faced with this conundrum, order different menus across the table, so that everyone can try a bit. All kinds of herbs find their way onto both menus, and many of them hail from Asia. A Indian tamarind named kokum, Vietnamese herbs, bold use of licorice: at times it almost seems as if each dish was constructed around a single herb (USUALLY EMPHASISED WITH ALL CAPS). My overall verdict on the menus: each menu features very strong dishes, but they tend to alternate (the 2nd dish on Fauna, the 5th dish on Flora). There is already a 3-star Michelin menu on the table, if we take the strongest dishes of both Flora and Fauna. The Fauna menu was the one served to me, and so apologies if my descriptions or recollections of the Flora menu are patchy.
Grace’s dining room is a classy muted bronze in colour. No natural light seeps in, except a brightly-lit kitchen sealed it by glass at the very head of the room. It is the open-kitchen concept that is all the rage today. Both of us were seated facing the kitchen, the metaphor of dining as theatre made explicit. Grace certainly has all the trappings and food to merit a 3-star rating (if the best of both menus are combined). I would be surprised if it doesn’t make it within a couple of years.
- The Tribune’s special feature on the story behind Chef Curtis Duffy and Grace – http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/grace/
Curtis’ cooking was the sort of intricately plated food to be consumed in six bites or fewer — just enough before the palate, mentally, becomes numb to the same flavor. “You want diners to say, ‘I wish I had one more piece of Wagyu beef, one more piece of salmon,” Curtis said. “You want them to not have just enough of a dish; you want them to crave for one more bite.”
So the plateware, Curtis decided, should act as more than serving vessels and actually enhance the taste of a dish, even if just in the mind. A chestnut puree’s creamy texture might be accentuated, he reasoned, if it was served in a bowl with no edges. He ordered curved bowls from France that resembled overinflated inner tubes.
What we had:
- Amuse: “Log of Delights”
- Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO
- Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS
- Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM
- Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON
- Bread #1
- Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE
- Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL
- Bread #2
- Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM
- Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW
- Bread #3
- Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE
- Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE
- Bread #4
- Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS
- Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL
- Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM
- Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM
- Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA
- Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY
- Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT
- Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL
- Birthday Cake
Amuse: “Log of Delights”
Quinoa chips, a lemon cup of intensely-lemon-scented(incl. zest and all) cold risotto, candied pineapple, ham with the slight taste of ginseng.
Fauna #1: Chawanmushi: osetra caviar, yuzu, PURPLE SHISO (4/5)
Chewy “bubble tea” balls in a ham-flavored chawanmushi, with puffed rice, a sprig of seagrapes. Osetra caviar at the center.
Flora #1: Salsify: golden char roe, apple, OXALIS (4.25/5)
Fauna #2: Alaskan King Crab: kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON BALM (5/5)
A tremendous dish. This dish alone was worth the entrance fee. King crab and small cubes of cucumber sit at the bottom of the bowl, with calamansi (a particularly tangy and acidic Southeast Asian lime) juice surrounding. A neutral sugar glass holds up the upper deck of ingredients, the including trout roe. To begin the dish, I smashed the upper deck into the lower deck with a spoon. It was all you could have asked from a dish, in both taste and effect. In the effects department: it had 3-dimensionality, interactivity (diner plays the chef), and time-sensitivity. In the taste department, the meaty flavor of king crab was contrasted the small neutral refreshing taste of cucumber, and the sourness of the lime, transformed by the dissolving sugar glass into a dessert-like thin calamansi sauce. The sugar glass was just the right thickness, not too sharp and easily dissolved in the mouth. This dish will haunt my dreams for a long time.
Flora #2: Winter Vegetables: huckleberry, amaranth, TARRAGON (3.25/5)
Bread #1: Whole Wheat Croissant, Herbed Butter and Butter
Fauna #3: Scallop: tamarind, smoke, FLAVORS OF LICORICE (4.5/5)
A whole Maine scallop from Desert Island, with licorice and anise hyssop purees. A coconut custard by the side.
Flora #3: Beet: black garlic, apple, RED RIBBON SORREL (3.75/5)
Bread #2: Red Onion and Black Olive Waffle
Fauna #4: Duck: sunflower, cranberry, MARJORAM (4.75/5)
A duck confit tortellini, with cranberry and an intensely flavored duck-consomme. This was a very complex dish, and everywhere I scooped with my spoon there was new bit of sweet solid stuff which I could not place. Tastes of lemongrass permeated the dish.
Flora #4: Sweet Potato: picholine, grapefruit, YARROW (3.5/5)
Bread #3: Rye baguette with sprinkled rye berries
Fauna #5: Sweetbreads: ten grains, caperberry, SAGE (4.5/5)
Perfectly fried sweetbreads, resting in a pile of multigrain, in a rich jus.
Flora #5: Perigord Truffle: crème caramel, sherry, CHIVE (5/5)
Another amazing dish of the night. Shaved truffle – still retaining all its crunch unlike some that can taste like cardboard – is put on top of a custard that has the taste of sherry, with caramelised chipolini onions. Little slices of brik (Turkish dough) scattered on top provide textural contrast. Superb. Decadent. Sherry, custard, and the texture of fresh truffle. Divine.
Bread #4: Pretzel with black lava salt from Hawaii
Fauna #6: Miyazaki Beef: romaine, peanut, VIETNAMESE HERBS (5/5)
“The discovery of Miyazaki” is how this dish was described to me. Miyazaki is perhaps the best beef in Japan, and the highest grade of wagyu. A slice of cured dreamy Miyazaki beef on top of a rice cracker, perfectly rare-cooked Miyazaki beef. Tender and full of fat. With something like fermented turnip undearneath, and various fresh, taut, Vietnamese herbs that evoked some of the street food I had in Saigon. It was paired with a cup of tom yum broth. This had some of the best elements of Southeast Asian cooking: the Indochinese rice cracker, the Vietnamese herbs, the peanuts and tom yum evoking Thailand. Tremendous.
I ate my Miyazaki beef using my rice cracker as a taco. Possibly the most expensive taco I’ve had to date.
Sorry for the blurriness!
Flora #6: Swiss Chard: red wine, elephant garlic, CHERVIL (3.75/5)
Fauna #7: Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM (4.5/5)
A dessert building on the Ispahan-esque base (also see, Restaurant Andre’s version) – raspberry, lychee, strawberry substituting for rose. Strawberry sorbet, dehydrated raspberries, dehydrated lychee. The 4th and 5th wheels were a cylinder of earl grey (one of the trendy tastes in Chicago – I had it all three nights in a row at Schwa + Alinea + Grace) and kokum puree, from an Indian tamarind.
Flora #7: Buddha’s Hand: passionfruit, brown butter, LEMON BALM (4.5/5)
Fauna #8: Pear: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA (4.5/5)
Another good dessert. A dome of (white chocolate?) covers licorice-tinged financiers, and Asian pear ice-cream. The licorice here was a star player, cutting through just pear and butter, and elevating the financiers.
Flora #8: Medjool Date: chartreuse, honey, CELERY (3.75/5)
I found this a bit one-dimensional, with the starchy sweetness of medjool date overpowering the other ingredients.
Fauna #9: Chocolate: pineapple, hazelnut, BANANA MINT (4.25/5)
A rooibos-infused goats-milk, strong tasting, into a traditional preparation of chocolate-hazelnut and pineapple.
Flora #9: Young Coconut: fennel, pistachio, BRONZE FENNEL (5/5)
Amazing, I remember – a cylinder of young coconut pairing with a tart cherry. A cylinder of coconut meringue and pistachio gelato were good, but all it needed was that sensational squiggle of coconut with a tart cherry.
Chocolate ganache, with passionfruit. Mmm.
Bonbons and apple “tartlets”.
Memory: Alaskan King Crab; Perigord Truffle Creme Caramel; Miyazaki Beef; Young Coconut