The best meal of my life was at Alinea, one of two restaurants in Chicago with three Michelin stars. It was a bucket list item that I’d planned for years. What happened next was perhaps inevitable: When Grace, a fast-rising star, earned its three Michelin stars in two short years, I set my sights on a new goal.
Elegant yet simple. Even the envelope with our menus from the night reflects the personality of the restaurant.
Since a visit to Grace costs nearly $500, I started saving months in advance. To most, $500 for a meal is excessive and ludicrous, but to me, it’s a fair price for a meal showcasing the talent and creativity of one of the world’s best chefs. Grace chef-owner Curtis Duffy worked at Chicago’s famed Trio and then opened Alinea with Grant Achatz. In between there and Grace he cooked at Avenues, where he earned two Michelin stars. It was only a matter of time before he took Grace to the summit of the culinary world.
I snagged reservations two months ahead of my trip. Finally, on an unusually cool summer evening, I found myself at the entrance to Grace.
Similar to Alinea, Grace has a very humble entrance. Had it not been for a valet stand, I would have probably walked right by. The restaurant name is etched onto the mirrored glass in small font near the front door.
My three dining companions and I came with empty stomachs and big expectations. We were asked to choose between flora and fauna tasting menus. I opted for the meatier fauna menu, which featured ingredients like Osetra caviar, Alaskan king crab and Miyazaki beef.
The menu is simple yet elegant.
The meal begins with a series of snacks laid out on a log. It’s a nice creative touch, considering the two tasting menus are named flora and fauna.
The first course arrives in a sealed glass jar billowing with smoke.
Inside we uncover a tasting of trout, Osetra caviar, lychee and chive. The star here is definitely the caviar with each tiny egg popping between your teeth and releasing the rich flavors within. The sweetness of lychee comes from a gel on the gold foil tab on top of the jar and lends a nice sweetness to the dish.
Next is a surprise course from the flora tasting. The sweet and tart flavors of blood orange are mellowed by milk, black olive and citrus herbs. The flavors are bright and refreshing; I can see why some opt for the flora menu.
Tender, succulent Alaskan king crab stars in the next course. Instead of the traditional lemon and butter, Duffy adds a Japanese flair with sudachi, a Japanese sour fruit, lemon mint and roe. The course is as delicious as it is beautiful and the roe adds a wonderful texture.
I admire Grace for their attention to detail even down to the butter provided during the bread service. The salted and herb butters are silky and rich. Usually the bread is the star of the show, but the butters do more than elevate the bread, they make the bread.
The next course features hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack). This is one of my favorite courses. The fish stands head and shoulders above the other ingredients and nothing muddles its sweet flavor.
Often a restaurant will overcook squab into a rubbery hunk, but Duffy and his team cook it perfectly. I glimpse the inner workings of Duffy’s mind: He plays a twisted joke on the diner by plating the squab with its food, sunflower seeds and unripened strawberries.
This Riedel decanter is in the shape of a cobra. It’s an impressive way to deliver the wine pairings. Kyle’s dad is just as impressed as we are and snaps a photo.
The service was impeccable. Plates were delivered in unison, and with the wine pours, became a symphony. Each movement by the staff was a well-orchestrated dance.
Here’s where things get a little wacky and I have to chuckle at Duffy’s sense of humor. This course of “pig tail” is a hearty braised section of pork connected to a chicharron to mimic a pig’s tail. I’m reminded of the “pig’s face” dish I had years back at Girl and the Goat, where a lowly cut of pork is turned into something luxurious and magical. I could eat this pig tail every single day for the rest of my life.
I can’t tell you how many photos I took of the Riedel decanters. This one looks like a duck.
No $500 dinner is complete without truffles. These black truffles are shaved over a nice raviolo with a savory jus poured all over. The bite is fleeting but memorable. Is this a throwback to the “black truffle explosion” dish at Trio? I don’t know, but I can see the striking similarities in flavor and presentation.
This is most definitely a swan. Adding this to my Amazon wishlist. How cool would it be to pour someone a glass out of a swan? Really cool.
Here is where Duffy put himself to the test. Using the highest quality Miyazaki wagyu beef, he prepares a Thai-Vietnamese dish of crispy rice paper, peanuts and tom yum soup. The big flavors of the dish do detract from the natural richness of the beef. Although slightly off the mark for me, the dish is delicious in parts but not cohesive.
Our waiter asks if we prefer chocolate or vanilla. Everyone chooses chocolate, so I of course select vanilla. What we get is a delicious mini-cone: a simple way to begin dessert.
This strawberry sphere has a nice balanced sweetness. My favorite of the desserts, it’s an interactive course where you crack open the ball to find other flavors inside.
By this time, I’m very full. The second to the last dessert is a silky chocolate crescent with exotic finger lime caviar. A little tart and very sweet, it’s time to start winding the meal down.
The final dessert is a liquid-filled sphere. It’s a clean way to end the delicious array of courses.
Following the meal we are treated to a kitchen tour and marvel at the well-stocked spice rack.
The board in the kitchen reads “We are but a quarter-note in a grand symphony.”
The experience at Grace was world-class. From the flawless service to the elegant serving pieces to the precise flavorings of the dishes, Grace did not disappoint. It is easy to see why food critics regard it as one of the leading restaurants in the country. The wine pairings were sensible and generous, the cuisine quirky and memorable.
Now that I’ve eaten the best that Chicago has to offer, I’m setting my sights on two pillars of the American dining scene: the French Laundry and Eleven Madison Park. I’ll get to them one day, but probably not very soon. They will take a bit of planning and a lot of saving.