You don’t have the money, and neither do I, but those who do might wonder where they should next drop $700 on dinner for two. It’s an absolutely insane question, and I can barely stomach hearing, much less answering, it. But the uncomfortable truth about Chicago is there are more options for this kind of spending every year, and the appetite for them isn’t fading. And if there’s anything more distasteful to this restaurant critic than spending that kind of cash on dinner, it’s spending it on a dinner that isn’t worth it. So hear this, moneybags: Spend that dough at Grace.
For those who have never eaten a $700 dinner—or, heck, even a $400 one—here’s a little bit about what they’re like: quiet (except when the servers are giving their ten-minute spiels about the food and wine). Precious (yes, those mushrooms were placed on that plate with tweezers). Drunken (wine pairings basically guarantee you will not remember your final courses, much less taking out your credit card). Having had a lot of these meals lately, these are the elements my companion and I were expecting from Grace. And when we walked into the dining room, it indeed felt familiar. It’s a room that has echoes of L20: the windowless walls. The tables so far from one another. The menus printed on thick paper that feels like velvet.
The comparisons stopped there. Chef Curtis Duffy and sommelier Michael Muser have executed small but key differences between Grace and its fine-dining cohorts, and though these tweaks to the formula are subtle, they add up. The servers don’t talk as much as they do at, say, Next. The room, once the night gets going, is more alive than L2O’s. And overall the experience feels less fussy. Duffy’s food, which I understand to have been more overtly molecular when he was at Avenues, has dialed up on nature, down on science. Plates such as a fried ring of sunchoke—as satisfying as steak, by the way—often resemble chaotic, gorgeous scenes from a forest. Certainly there were tweezers involved in putting these plates together. Certainly molecular methods played a role. But Duffy has done an adept job at hiding all that and bringing his ingredients forward—and he’s done so while sparing us the lecture on the provenance of each herb.
Where Duffy fumbles is in his penchant for sweetness. The former pastry chef includes an orange slice encased in a thin, glassy candy as one of the first bites of the meal. It’s delicious, and I would forgive it, but it was just the first of many sweet plates to come. There are two menus at Grace—one vegetable, one animal—and the follow-up to the candied orange on the vegetable menu is a dish that combines pungent tarragon ice with chewy bites of saccharine dry pineapple. The next course is a substantial plate of meaty, sugary carrots. A couple of courses later: a winter squash soup, poured into the bowl through a frozen (so much here is frozen) sheet of pulverized brioche. In this dish, though, the sugar works, because just as the warm soup plays off the cold, melting brioche, the sweet squash bounces off crunchy slivers of crabapple, so tart they taste pickled.
Dessert starts after that. Well, actually, the bowl of chestnut pudding garnished with a forest of sliced black truffles technically is not a dessert—a boring plate of maitakemushrooms, tasting primarily of char, separates this dish from the proper sweets by pastry chef Bobby Schaffer. But the chestnuts are so decadent and thick I’m making it an honorary dessert anyway.
If I’m talking a lot about the vegetable tasting menu, that’s because between it and the animal route, vegetable wins. There are lovely moments in the animal meal: a cool and sunny Meyer lemon pudding topped with caviar, for example. But most of the time, the beautiful meats on the plate—a silken Scottish salmon; Wagyu beef with an impossibly crisp exterior and a middle that melts—never marry with the accoutrements around them. That disconnect even extends to the desserts: Schaffer, like Duffy, gives the animal eaters flavors that are bigger, blunter and more intense, but also less sophisticated.
By any measure, though, Schaffer soars above most pastry chefs in the city. His icy cranberry “pearls” with rye crumble are cold, tart, crunchy, sweet and never get old, not even after the tenth bite. His gorgeous coconut cake, with dollops of lime gel and basil sorbet, is clean, citrusy and sunny. His roasted pumpkin dessert has deep, honeylike notes, and his chocolates—presented at the end of the meal on branches, as if these things grew in the woods—are vibrant bites, with fillings such as a kaffir lime cream that obliterate any chance the meal could end too rich.
And that’s no small feat. My companion and I walked out of Grace neither grossly overstuffed nor hungry. We were nowhere near sober, but we were also not drunk. That’s a signal of the thought Duffy and Muser have put into the Grace experience. And that’s why if you’ve got $700 to drop, at Grace it will feel worth it.