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Waiting for culinary nirvana at Grace

Curtis Duffy's food weakens the knees, but his long-awaited restaurant isn't all the way there yet.

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In the February issue of Vanity Fair there's a provocative and problematic essay by food writer Corby Kummer on the tyranny of fine dining; or how extravagantly priced, multihour, multicourse tasting menus supposedly subjugate the desires of the diner in favor of egocentric cheffy autocracy.

I read it just in time for dinner at Grace—the most anticipated new restaurant of the past 18 months, from former Avenues chef Curtis Duffy—and I couldn't keep it out of my mind. Kummer's world-weary essay for the 1 percent raises a few good points but they all teeter on an unstable foundation; nobody is forced to drop hundreds of dollars on multicourse meals. If you're privileged enough to have the means, however, then you should go into such meals with the mindset that you're paying to experience a unique culinary narrative from an individual voice.

That said, Grace is very much Duffy's first-person narrative. This is immediately apparent as you're ushered up an inclining hallway into the dimly lit, gray-and-blond-wood dining room, where the first thing to seize your attention is a glass window that takes up nearly the entire opposite wall. Behind it is the brightly lit, spotless kitchen, crowded with busy cooks (on the night I ate they handily outnumbered diners). And among them stalks Duffy. The effect is something like staring at a movie screen in a multiplex with the chef, and his chiseled Hollywood hunkiness, in the starring role.

If you're eating as a pair, your chairs are likely to be arranged not face-to-face but face-to-Duffy-and-crew, and if you can't pocket your smartphone, servers will provide a pillow for it, which is slyly analogous to the admonition to shut them off before the previews start. It is difficult to look away to concentrate on companions, wine, or even the food, which isn't as favorably lit as the line cooks. For food groupies it's like a TV tuned to a Bulls game in a sports bar. You're there to watch the chefs as much as you are to eat.

But Duffy's not one of Kummer's tyrants. You do have a choice—between two nine-course menus, one vegetable focused, the other a bit meatier. Each of these costs $185, which after wine, tax, and tip positions Grace as the second-most expensive restaurant in the city (after Alinea, with Elizabeth a close third).

That's not to say that Duffy, who opened Alinea under Grant Achatz and worked with him at Trio before, is presumptuous—though when you exit, your autographed menus will be waiting at the door. He established his own style in the stuffy, overformal environs of Avenues—also in an open kitchen—and was deservedly lauded for a modernist approach, with brilliantly colored presentations whose hypermanipulated aspects were softened and made accessible by tiny vegetal flourishes.

Duffy's style hasn't changed. Each dish on Grace's menu is described with a scant four ingredients, the last one of those a microgarnish written in ALL CAPS, as if to underscore the importance of the tiniest elements. On the plate these bits of black mint, nasturtium, carrot top, or red sorrel provide the grounding, cosmetic detail that prevents each dish from appearing as a cold abstract.

As with most menus written in this minimal style, the words don't do much to reveal the secrets of dishes that are dizzying in their complexity. On the other hand, there's none of the playful interactivity, memory games, or referential tricks of the mind and eye that chefs at this level often overuse to distract diners from their failure to create food that actually tastes good.

Duffy manages to coax out flavors of knee-weakening intensity on both menus. But I found myself enjoying more of them on the veggie-dominant "flora" menu. There are orange and purple carrots prepared in several ways—roasted, dehydrated, liquefied—with pureed and braised pistachios and creamy mascarpone. There is a circular arrangement of soft, deep-fried sunchoke nuggets, onion chips, nutty roasted green wheat, and "braised" mustard seeds (aka "mustard"). There are jellylike coconut noodles strewn across a landscape of torn cake nuggets, basil gelato, and pickled huckleberries in a dessert that brought back one of the most memorable things I ever ate at Avenues.

Surprisingly for a chef known for his light touch, some of the heaviest courses appear on the flora menu. A sunburst-colored squash soup, given texture by toasted "waffle" croutons and crunchy bits of acidic crab apple, is richly substantial, while a pasty chestnut puree adorned with sliced black truffle and crunchy shards of dehydrated almond milk is a bit too much for the midpoint of the menu.

Like the flora menu, the meatier "fauna" has its unforgettable dishes. A salad of trout roe, tuna, and pomelo sections in a cylinder of ginger-flavored ice that's meant to be shattered with a spoon is a sweet, sour, and briny convergence of flavors and soft and crunchy textures. Meyer lemon custard forms a bed for briny Osetra caviar and sour kumquat. Silky tender bits of veal cheek are adorned by a scattering of compressed green grape coins and nutty oatmeal risotto, garnished with a single tempura anchovy and accented by a puddle of liquefied anchovy.

But not every dish knocks it out of the park, which is especially regrettable when the check comes. A seared-then-chilled scallop is doused in a bloodred hibiscus tea, for a gory effect that heightens the shellfish's gelid, leftover texture. A custard made from the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi tasted almost burned, while back on the vegetable menu a maitake mushroom bloom was saturated in an unaccountably bitter mushroom consomme (a liquid trick now appearing on at least two other tasting menus around town).

Both menus come with appealing incidentals: specific bread pairings for each course (pretzel bread, hibiscus brioche, red wine baguette). But for an astonishing citrus fruit encased in a thin shell of smoked-paprika taffy, an amuse bouche of four little bites served on a bourbon-barrel stave isn't quite as memorable as two mignardises: a chocolate sphere that explodes in the mouth with a burst of liquefied caramel popcorn and a dark chocolate bonbon with an intense creamy kaffir lime core.

As different as the two menus are, general manager Michael Muser's wine pairings are identical for both. The two-ounce pours are almost exclusively French and predominantly whites from the Loire Valley. I can appreciate the challenge in devising a single set of pairings to fit two separate menus. Two would be a challenge to pour, but I wonder why Muser didn't make it easier on himself and tailor a separate list for each.

Service is relaxed without abdicating formality, but it's still immature—a server twice failed to describe one of the dishes on the table. Not the end of the world, but the price point of a meal such as this tends to amplify those sorts of gaffes, which, under other circumstances, would be insignificant. For $800 and change you may find yourself slowly savoring a dish only to stop to wonder why all the tablecloth skirts are wrinkled. Restaurants iron out details like these over time, but for whoever's paying the check, they're likely to linger much longer.

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