One of the favorite activities my daughter Kristina and I love to share together is our quest for beautiful food everywhere in the world. Whenever Kristina is visiting us near Chicago from her home in Los Angeles, we know all we have to do is drive into the city for some of the best food on the planet. When she was in college at Northwestern University, Trio was right down the street. Little did she know that she would cross paths several times with Curtis Duffy, who has worked his way through the finest restaurants in Chicago, including Trio, and later at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel where she first interviewed Chef Duffy. As they were talking about his menu and food in general, Kristina mentioned how much she loved cardamom. Before she left, the chef went into the kitchen and brought her back a sealed packet of some special black cardamom as a gift. How’s that for grace, which also happens to be the name of Curtis’s new restaurant on West Randolph in Chicago.
Actually finding Grace took us a little extra time. At home back in Los Angeles, Kristina has her nice new car with a sophisticated GPS system. Here at home, my older car has no GPS, so we had to rely on the unsophisticated Google maps. We had no problem finding West Randolph, but kept passing back and forth down the same block, confused by the addresses. We finally pulled over and called the restaurant. Turns out, we were right there, but didn’t realize we had to make a crooked jog across a one-way street into a small area with a few barely marked buildings. We finally spotted the word “Grace” in a tiny script on the door. On this very cold winter night, we opened the door to find a spacious, luxurious, yet comforting dining room. We were led to our table and sat down on the most comfortable chairs I have ever found in a restaurant. We also had a view of the kitchen (through our wine glass)
As we took in the warm feeling of the dining room our menus were brought to us. There were two choices; the vegetarian Flora, and Fauna which would include salmon, beef, and veal. We decided on both, of course, so we could taste each.
Before the first course, we were presented with an array of amuse-bouche on a wine barrel stave. They were all perfect bites, but we both agreed that the mandarin orange with smoked paprika was our favorite.
Our attentive server noticed we were taking photos and brought us a special plate for our cell phones.
Needless to say, the service is impeccable and polished; and as you will see, the food is a work of art with meticulous detail, each bite sending your taste buds into overdrive. I’ll start with the Flora menu.
dried pineapple, tarragon ice, FENNEL
iranian pistachio, whipped mascarpone, CARROT TOP
braised mustard seeds, freekeh, cippolini onion, LOVAGE
black sesame, quinoa, OPAL BASIL
perigold truffle, roasted almond, RED SORREL
preserved daikon, coffee, SCALLION
crispy rye, toasted meringue, pine ice, SAGE
lime, huckleberry, AFRICAN BLUE BASIL
caramelized chocolate, mandarin, LEMON BALM
Are you ready to be a vegetarian yet? Maybe, until you taste the Fauna menu:
meyer lemon, kumquat jam, CHIVE
golden trout roe, pomelo, THAI BASIL
burnt orange, idiazabal, PERUVIAN OXALIS
crispy red cabbage, citrus pudding, MARIGOLD
Grilled Matsusaka Beef
king trumpet, salsify, MASHUA LEAF
red wine braised endive, sunflower seed, BLACK MINT
elderflower, tamarind juice, BRONZE FENNEL
toasted cashew, asian pear, NASTURTIUM
raw chestnut, persimmon, LEMON MINT
I almost forgot to mention – there is also a special bite-sized bread and beautiful butters served with each course. Everything from whole grain to pretzel bread.
Yes, this is butter!
And just when you thought it was all over…
This wasn’t listed on the menu. The caramel corn flavor is also inside the delicate truffle on the plate. Just a warning if you go to Grace – keep your mouth completely shut when you bite into it. Very UNgraceful to spew the delicious liquid all over your table mates. The other truffles in the log were to die for, of course. After all this, you would think we would be busting at the seams. Oddly, it didn’t happen. The servings were small and perfect. The plated food can usually be consumed in six bites or fewer, which is just enough to wish you had more. The chef says, “You want them to not have just enough of a dish; you want them to crave for one more bite.” There is barely any butter or cream which cause the feelings of fullness.
After our last bite, Kristina and I were invited into the kitchen to meet Chef Duffy. It’s not a huge kitchen, and it is quiet and in perfect sync. No screaming chefs here, only those completely intense and mesmerizing Curtis Duffy eyes. You can tell with one glance that he has control of his kitchen. They are also very kind and engaging eyes. The chef proudly showed us his wall of perfectly lined up spices. (and much to Kristina’s delight – her favorite black cardamom is there!)
On a side wall you will see the following, which obviously is one of the chef’s favorite words:
Right outside the kitchen is a beautiful private dining room:
I restrained myself from taking photos of the four restrooms, but each is a must-see designed in honor of a specific season.
Kristina and I felt like we were floating on air when it was time to leave. It was one of the most memorable dining experiences we have ever had. When the menu changes to the next season, we hope to return. One more thing- please go read this article about Chef Curtis Duffy that was printed recently in the Chicago Tribune by Kevin Pang. It will leave you in tears and cheering for the chef, who pulled himself from a tragic childhood into the world of cooking. His saving grace. The story is being made into a documentary on his life and the opening of Grace restaurant. We wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Why I Started This Blog
I love cookbooks. I mean I really love them. I love to read them, treasure them, learn from them, and, of course, cook from them. To me, cookbooks take on a life all of their own. They are history, family, and memories. I have been collecting cookbooks and writing down treasured recipes of family, friends, and neighbors since about age twelve, which means I now own thousands of cookbooks, recipes, and clippings. Now I want to share them with you along with the many other culinary treasures of my cellar." - Debbie Vanni