In my experience, Chicago’s fine dining restaurants are defined by their ability to mediate the requisite seriousness expected of high-end restaurants with a refreshing sense of play and formal experimentation; Alinea and Moto are the two most accomplished examples, but Tru and Graham Elliot (among others) also qualify. Of course, one can find flourishes of molecular gastronomy throughout the country, but I still think of Chicago as the national capital for this 21st century culinary genre. Naturally, with the arrival of Curtis Duffy’s Grace in the winter of 2012, I was curious to see how the restaurant would compare with its Chicago peers.
Fully aware that Duffy worked for both Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter in the past, I also wanted to see which famous chef holds a greater influence on Duffy’s own cuisine. The contrast between Achatz and Trotter is often painted in personal terms rather than culinary ones; this frustrating tendency ignores the more relevant differences in their actual culinary styles, and how traces of Trotter’s cuisine can be found in Achatz’s cooking. If I had to distill Trotter’s cuisine down to a few choice descriptors, I would say he favored idiosyncratic ingredient pairings and an abstract plating technique. Trotter was hardly as experimental as Cantu, Achatz, or Dufresne, but I think his style was still more eclectic than what one finds with Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, or other chefs who broadly fit into that 80s-90s generation. Even though it is well-known that Keller was Achatz’s mentor, I actually think that the cuisine at Alinea is closer to Trotter than Keller, both through the unprecedented ingredient pairings and the free-flowing designs in which they are presented. Meanwhile, the primary differences separating Achatz from Trotter are that Achatz’s menus are longer and more circuitous, and he also privileges textural experimentation to a greater extent.
These differences between Chicago’s two main culinary giants of the past couple of decades were on my mind before dining at Grace, and part of my mindset was simply due to the fact that I was never able to experience his cooking first-hand while he was at Avenues. My perspective was, therefore, much different from that of one of my two dining companions; while he approached the meal with the intent on comparing the cuisine at Avenues with that of Grace, I didn’t have this frame of reference. In fact, I knew very little about Grace heading into the meal; I had yet to read any substantial blog posts on the restaurant. My main source of knowledge was Kevin Pang’s Tribune feature “His Saving Grace,” which offered a comprehensive look at Duffy’s past but failed to connect Duffy’s stirring personal biography with the actual experience of dining at Grace.
Even though I hadn’t read any detailed reviews of Grace, I was familiar with the dining room since Eater provided a running account of the process leading up to the opening. One can see that the space was easy on the eyes, and the chairs were particularly comfortable. I think the open kitchen is a surprising touch in a restaurant of this caliber; one might think it would impart a frantic tone, but it actually had the opposite effect, as the kitchen was exceptionally quiet.
As with Charlie Trotter’s (and French Laundry), Grace offers either a protein tasting or a vegetable one. We all chose the protein menu, although I substituted the Australian black truffle dish for the artichoke one (course 4.) I was pleased to find congruence between the two menus; each course listed a primary ingredient and then a short list of secondary ones that ended with a garnish listed in all-caps. Emphasizing the garnishes in this way foreshadowed the strong role they played in the meal; certainly, I’ve never seen such an effusive description of them, but I suppose it’s to Duffy’s credit that takes the unusual step of experimenting with the diacritics of the menu in the service of expressing his culinary style.
Our meal opened with 3 canapes: king crab with butter, a sphere filled with liquid tomato and topped with Osetra caviar, and a shot of watermelon juice. I don’t understand why restaurants don’t just offer the intended sequence for consumption when presenting multiple opening bites at once. I enjoyed all three tastes but wish that I’d had the juice first and the crab last. Serving watermelon juice was unusual, but it showcased Duffy’s love of fruit and so it was conceptually relevant.
The first course was presented as an amuse bouche but this was a very arbitrary distinction given that it was sized large enough for a first course. There were many ingredients, including shaved lemon ice, orange zest, a cooked New Zealand oyster, blueberries, and lavender. From this course, one can locate the essentials of Duffy’s cuisine, namely a love of spices and garnishes, a resistance to let the protein monopolize the dish, and a preference for fruits and vegetables. This composition is abstract but in a balanced way, and in this regard it reminded me of the sort of dish one might have found at Charlie Trotter’s. It tasted delicious and I could not have asked for more out of a first course.
We were then served “Heirloom Tomato: burrata, lemon, THAI BASIL,” a sort of deconstructed caprese salad. Unlike most people, I actually prefer winter flavors to summer ones, due to my aversion to tomatoes, corn and other summer produce, and preference for cabbages and squashes. Because of this bias, I enjoyed this dish less than I should have, as it was just as complex as the other courses. The glass sphere presented an unusual texture, and this was the one savory dish that really resembled what one might find at Alinea.
Another similarity between Grace and Charlie Trotter’s is the decision to serve formal bread pairings. The first of these was raisin bread, which was delicious but not as remarkable as the outstanding duo of butters.
Our first really substantial course was “Squab: kaffir, green strawberry, SORREL.” There were two squab preparations; a piece of crispy squab leg was placed in the pile on the right. Serving squab with kaffir lime caught my eye when I first glanced at the menu and while it reflected Duffy’s love of fruits, I still can’t understand the decision. I also don’t see the logic behind the composition; when I look at this dish, my eye gravitates toward the perfectly-cooked squab. Meanwhile, the right side of the plate makes far less sense and really wasn’t anything more than an overbearing array of tacky flavors; the lime was way too strong for the dish and the green strawberry didn’t make sense either. This dish was derived through an abstruse logic beyond my comprehension and other than the breast, it just didn’t taste very good either.
The second bread pairing was a cheese-flavored flatbread. It was very nice but didn’t lend itself to the butter.
I don’t enjoy artichokes and so I substituted the Australian black truffle from the vegetable menu. The preparation—which paired the truffle with crème caramel, sherry, and chive blossom—was extremely attractive and the dish was as delicious as anticipated.
Between our fourth and fifth courses, we were served a roll with an inside that was green from the house butter—delicious.
One of the more curious aspects of this meal (to me) was the decision to serve the beef before the lamb; it is pretty unusual to serve beef and lamb in the same meal in the first place. The sequence is particularly odd since the online menu specifies that the beef is served after the lamb. I suppose that Chef Duffy swaps the two dishes at his discretion and just adjusts the portion size accordingly. Course placement aside, this was one of the more interesting ingredient combinations I’ve had, with chanterelles, a large cube of watermelon gelee, and mashua leaf. The beef was Japanese Wagyu from Miyazaki prefecture and I wish it had been larger. Obviously, Grace is not the only tasting menu restaurant where the protein is something of an accompaniment, but I think that considering that this was the fifth course, it needed to be more substantial. It was still excellent, however, and another representative example of Duffy’s stylistic tendency for presenting abstract compositions in a very balanced way. In this respect, the course looked like the sort I’d have found at Charlie Trotter’s, and overall, I definitely found Duffy’s cuisine to veer much closer to Trotter than Achatz.
Our last bread was an outstanding pretzel, capping a terrific string of bread offerings.
The last meat course was lamb neck, served with kale, parsley root, and a particularly strong black mint. I’m not that fond of lamb neck as it is too fatty, and I like mint even less. This was a fine preparation on its own merits, but it just did not conform to my personal preferences. Fortunately, my companions seemed to enjoy it.
With many restaurants, a disruptive break exists between the savory dishes and the desserts; one of the advantages to Chef Duffy’s tendency to incorporate fruit into the savory dishes is that it makes the transition into the desserts less jarring than normal. The first of our fruit-heavy desserts was “Golden Raspberry: lychee, kokum, NASTURTIUM.” Even though I’m not so fond of summer produce, I do love berries and so I was pleased to see a raspberry dessert. However, the nasturtium was out of control and compromised the dish.
Another dish that seemed in the spirit of Grant Achatz was “Peach: black sugar, licorice, LEMON VERBENA.” As with the tomato dish, we were told to smash the peach shell, under which lay a refreshing mix of summer flavors. This was easily my favorite dessert of the night.
Course 9 was “Young Coconut: lime, huckleberry, AFRICAN BLUE BASIL.” On paper, this was an exciting ingredient combination, but the blue basil was way too extreme for me—and I actually love basil in my desserts.
A duo of mignardises finished the meal.
With the conclusion of our dinner, we took a tour of the kitchen. Chef Duffy was there and everyone operated with maximum efficiency. Two aspects of the kitchen were of particular note: the first was a wall of spices and garnishes, which provided the only color in the room and which our tour guide explained is fully functional. Constructing a shrine of spices obviously revealed the reverence Duffy has for spices and garnishes, so the unusual monument held special relevance.
The other eye-catcher was the description “96 days,” found on the whiteboard. Our guide noted that this was a reference to the Michelin guide, which was to be released 96 days from our meal. There is no harm in Duffy using the Michelin release date as a motivating tactic, but I think keeping such close attention to it reveals how Michelin is really the primary audience to whom the restaurant is directed. After all, it is no secret that Avenues received 2 Michelin stars and that one of Duffy’s chief motives for opening his own restaurant is that it would offer him the creative control he needed to truly author a 3-Star restaurant.
Of course, it would be naïve to expect a major chef not to focus on the Michelin guide, but I still think Duffy is overly focused on delivering the sort of precise technique he probably feels is necessary to acquire the third star. One of the great challenges of operating a world-class restaurant is that we expect chefs to deliver meals that are balanced but also dramatic and surprising. For myself, this meal had too much coherence—every dish was organized around garnishes, with no courses that really stood out as centerpieces. There were bold flavors, but they were tacked on via garnishes rather than organically borne out of arresting flavor combinations. Sometimes it’s nice to go to dinner and be entirely overwhelmed, and this meal had none of the ilinx one finds at a meal at Alinea, McCrady’s, etc.
However, it is to Duffy’s credit that he at least has a clear culinary style, unlike so many chefs that just present minor variations of what everyone else is doing. I could definitely see the influence of Charlie Trotter (and to a lesser extent, Grant Achatz), but Duffy clearly has his own approach, and it doesn’t possess the ludic intensity of the other major Chicago chefs. His style—which is reliant on spices to an unprecedented degree—isn’t as pleasurable as that of most other ultra high-end chefs. My favorite fine dining restaurants are those that offer a hedonistic experience that is simultaneously focused and creative. Even though this meal was definitely unique, it lacked the pleasure needed to complete the experience. I don’t feel qualified to give a real guess as to how many stars Duffy will receive in this year’s Red Guide, but in a way it would be fitting for Michelin to hold him in high regard—they seem to be his intended audience anyhow.