If one has to experience heartbreak to appreciate love, then I think I’ve earned this dessert. For the first time tonight, my eyebrows climb halfway up my forehead. I’m feeling things I’ve not felt before.
Until I met this custard — spiked with hyper-sour sudachi, its sugars gently burnt — I thought I had the food here all figured out. Now I’m grasping at fireflies. Ginger, cashew and nasturtium seem to glow and dissipate at random. Along with the citrus, they flicker between sweet and spicy, nutty and smoky, creamy and — yes — bitter. It’s that last one that I’ve been chasing all night.
This dessert is the eighth of nine courses at a restaurant called Grace. Along with the six months I’ve waited since this place opened, that feels like a generous enough grace period.
Truth be told, I’m here because of a writer. Or maybe in hopes of becoming one myself. Kevin Pang’s extraordinary profile of chef Curtis Duffy in the Chicago Tribune is nothing if not poignant. I read it and wept. Then I bought a plane ticket.
But after I thank Mr. Pang for spurring this trip, who can I blame for garnishing this squab? The flesh itself is exquisite — sanguine, gamey, almost ferric. Yet the dish finishes like mouthwash, all prickly and green. I glance at the playbill to see that the culprits are kaffir lime, unripe strawberry and — oh yeah — SORREL.
Heeding the siren song of the Caps Lock key, the author of this menu punctuates every line with that kind of emphasis. These green leafy garnishes read like the social media hash tags of a tween begging for attention. Follow for a follow. Like for a like. The absurdity has me #SMH.
Maybe that’s nitpicking, but since dinner for four and two cheapish bottles of wine here cost as much as my monthly Manhattan rent, I think I’ll do some more…
As menu descriptions end in the same way, so do many of the dishes themselves. A snack of buttery warm crab is followed immediately by a frozen sphere of green tomato and mint. The pucker of passion fruit tramples the brine of an oyster. Raw kampachi is probably of top quality, but it’s shielded by a sleeve of ice that tastes like pickled ginger. At Grace, you might flirt with fat and sneak around with sugar, but it’s acid that you’re forced to marry.
To your list of vows add this list of wine. Page one is a manifesto, typeset like poetry in all lowercase letters. That’s pretty fun. Servers move around the room like ballroom dancers while you read it. Ceremoniously and solemnly, they glide over to ration diminutive rolls that are to be paired with certain courses.
But time passes and bread is buttered. So again and again I stare at my crumb-filled plate, wondering why it’s not been restocked once tonight. They can spin these baby baguettes like a basketball on their fingers for all I care. Just please keep them coming.
Or maybe just let me keep this artichoke dish, because I love it and don’t want to let it go. Plated like a hilly terrarium, there are powders and creams and leaves and all sorts of crispy earth-toned objects that I don’t care to identify. It smells like the Indian spice store across the street from my old apartment, and tastes a million times better than anything I ever cooked in that kitchen.
Miyazaki beef sets my heart aflutter, too. The fat has been so carefully rendered that the meat seems to dissolve on my tongue. So does a slab of the most tender braised lamb, decked out with kale and black mint. But while the former benefits from the delicate crunch of parsnip chips, the latter suffers under a clunky tile of parsley root that is damn near petrified. I’m all for contrasting textures, but human teeth weren’t made to handle this one.
I’m starting to wonder if we messed up in choosing the Fauna menu over the more vegetable-focused Flora, but it makes me sad to think that that’s even a possibility. I don’t want choices, anyway. I just want delicious.
And I find it, happily, in pastry chef Bobby Schaffer’s desserts. In poached pear slices, formed into little cones and filled with drops of tamarind juice. In the tiny elderflowers and fennel fronds that are scattered across the top.
A small crew of pastry cooks watches us now from the open kitchen, Sharpies and tweezers peeking out of their pockets. Maybe from that distance they can see our smiles. Of that simple social grace, I hope I am at least capable. And in Chef Duffy’s good graces, I hope I remain.
Perhaps on another night, with another menu, I’d have had better luck. But restaurants with this level of ambition are a gambling man’s game. And maybe the lesson learned tonight is that next time, I should not bet on hearts.