Running a lot of photoshoots from contemporary restaurants, as I do at Grub Street, I see trends I didn’t really notice before, and one is that how food is plated has changed tremendously without, really, anyone talking about it or even having a name for it, so far as I know. I call it the sprawl— it’s when the food is arranged in a line or a loose S-shape on a plate with different ingredients and garnishes and sauces plopped along the path. Well, not exactly plopped, since it’s often arranged very carefully with tweezers. But the point is, it doesn’t look at all like food has ever looked before, that kind of random-seeming scattering of food on the plate. Instead of a distinct thing— a dish, like moussaka or steak au poivre or chicken and waffles— suddenly, everywhere at once, you have this display of disparate parts, like the exploded view of a mechanical device for you to put together on the fork (and in your head). How did that become the way we eat now?
I think you can see it as a logical point in the evolution of fine dining. In the 90s we had tall food— a puddle of puree, the protein on top, more stuff piled on top of that. Then we had the tasting menu with its many small courses— but small things plated the same way prompted jokes about tiny food on a big plate. And so now we have the sprawl, scattering the parts across the plate to take up more real estate and produce the excitement of the hunt— each bite will turn up some new combination of the things scattered on the plate.
Or, maybe it just turns every dish into a salad. That, I think, is the risk— raw or lightly cooked vegetable material tends to dominate even when the focus of the dish is supposed to be an expensive slab of luxe protein. Anyway, I was thinking about all this, because— well, I ate the vegetarian menu at Grace (the menus are “Flora” and “Fauna”). I did, really? Me, celebrator of meat, guanciale curing in my basement right now? Yeah, but I have nothing against vegetarian food when it’s made by someone who is making vegetarian food, not merely leaving meat out of food (or, gad, putting something fake in for it). I was curious to see how a meal at this level could be made without meat. (I was emboldened to be so curious about a meal at this price level because— disclosure— I was a guest of the house. I probably would have chickened out of such an experiment on my own dime, given Grace’s four-star-level cost.) Can you do a meal like this entirely out of vegetables and make it as satisfying as the usual tasting menu circa 2013, or is the absence of meat protein too obvious? And if you can do it… can you do it in February?
The meal started with a few bites served on a long charred barrel stave, which arrived at the table like a brontosaurus rib. The bites, however, were delicate and intense— I especially recall a single mandarin orange slice, lacquered with paprika-flavored candy. These were little bites of magic, new flavors invented at the moment of tasting. The carrot dish that followed— pictured at top— was a sprawl doing everything you’d want it to do; the aged carrots had concentrated flavor, accompanied in turn by a new sauce and a new taste every time you lifted a piece and found the next little blob of goo. It’s a delightful dish— and, I found out later, one that’s been driving the kitchen nuts; it was mentioned in Kevin Pang’s Tribune article about chef Curtis Duffy’s personal history, and so even those who order the Fauna menu want to try it. For a while they were sending it out as a courtesy, then they were charging extra for it, but either way, Duffy observed bemusedly to me that they felt like they were spending half the kitchen’s energy on the damn carrot dish and he was sick of it already.
In my last Grace video Duffy talked about how, during winter in Chicago, you have to reach beyond the city to find things that are growing. Yet many of the courses were almost defiantly wintry, daring you to find enough sustenance in winter’s foreboding, like this Goth dish of cauliflower, black sesame, quinoa and opal basil:
or this musky plate of maitake mushroom and preserved daikon, with coffee:
Throw in a bowl of chestnut and truffle slices and you have a serious exploration of winter’s hard-won bounty, rendered into as much luxury as can be managed so monochromatically. But then I looked over and saw my wife was eating this:
It wasn’t just the riotous color of this Scottish salmon dish, though it was gorgeous, but by now, halfway through the menu, I was missing the contrasts that animal protein would have brought to the meal— the lush fattiness of that salmon, the salty, iron-y physicality of red meat, the brine of roe, all those things. Duffy cooks mostly vegetarian either way, but it turned out that for me, the difference between mostly vegetarian and entirely vegetarian was a huge one. Vegetables on their own— even when we were talking such voluptuous things as chestnuts and truffles— didn’t have enough variety. Maybe they would in July— the flora menu would be an explosion of green and bright fruit flavors then— but for me, I needed at least a hint of carnality to make this meal complete. (Serendipitously, right about as I was feeling this way, Duffy sent me the latest iteration of the kobe beef and mushroom dish which I had tried during the shoot for the last Finding Grace video. Now that’s my kind of vegetarian meal!)
I don’t go into this level of course-by-course detail with the intention of suggesting any dissatisfaction— merely to answer the question which has usually come up when I tell people I had the vegetarian menu, which is, was it worth it? Well, worth it in terms of creativity, ingenuity, artistry? Yes, it’s captivating to watch Duffy produce dish after dish which looks like nothing you’ve seen before. The “sprawl” here gets twisted and rejiggered and reimagined with every course; he’s plainly ahead of anybody else in town in that regard, plating with an abstract complexity that even the most exquisite sprawl-makers don’t rival. But for me, carnivore that I am, and winter as it is, an all-vegetable menu in February was like an orchestra without brass; it didn’t need much, but there’s something that woodwinds and strings alone can’t get to. Again, maybe that wouldn’t be true in summer, or maybe not for you, but it was for me that night, and the vegetable dishes got more interesting when I managed to have a bite of salmon or beef. (Beyond that, I have to say, especially after dining at L2O a while back, I was really curious to see what Duffy would do with more fish on the menu— I think of the most delicate tastes of the sea I had there, and they seem natural fits for Duffy’s even more delicate vegetable-driven menu.)
In any case, it’s impossible to have “I should have done X” thoughts as dessert— a full third of the menu, including mignardises at the end— makes its way out to you. Each of these plates was like a windup toy, bringing you color (even the monochromatic coconut and lime dessert at top) and playful surprises— frozen cranberry spheres (oh, go ahead, say it, DIPPIN’ DOTS) on pine ice, pumpkin and chocolate and what looks like deep-fried silly string, tiny twirls of pear set in elderflower goo— it was one showstopping burst of imagination after another.
And it is perhaps time to bring the theatrical metaphors in, because as much as one may talk about the food, on some level Grace may be the first restaurant fully built for our sense of dining as the performing art of our age. It’s not just that the illuminated kitchen behind its big rectangular window resembles a movie screen (and Duffy a movie star, as Mike Sula noted), but the tables are arranged to face it during dinner, like parked cars at a drive-in. (When I ate here last week, I immediately thought— just like Grace!) And it isn’t a matter of only known foodies getting a chance to go behind the screen to meet the chef. A kitchen visit is simply assumed as part of every dinner; you’re here, by definition you want to meet the chef and be allowed in his gleaming white 2001-spaceship of a kitchen. Why pretend you’re not a foodie-groupie?
So what tone does service set in such a new environment when it’s aiming to be world-class? Go too old school, and you evoke an era of aristocracy that would never have wished to see the kitchen in their lives; get too informal, though, and the fatcats who can afford this kind of meal won’t feel sufficiently deferred to. Michael Muser’s service team manages to square the circle with service that’s as precise as the chefs in the kitchen but affects informality— “What I really like about this wine is…”, that sort of thing. Which is kind of a funny place for ultra-high-end fine dining to be in now— the masters of the universe, the guys with the mostest, nonetheless looking to blue collar servers for guidance to the really good stuff. (True, they always looked to the sommelier that way, but he was an accredited professional with a title, like a bishop.) The old class distance between the moneyed and servers still exists— at least it sure as hell existed at Trotter’s when I went shortly before it closed— but the rules of engagement between diner and restaurant for the 21st century are being worked out in Grace’s hyperaware yet unfussy, practicedly relaxed service.
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NOTE ON THE FOLLOWING: My dinner visit was a while back and I’m told you can now order any damn thing you want on a pizza at Reno.
Edward’s Ham, Kimchi, Spinach, mozzarella, fried garlic pizza.
I’ve been to Reno three times, once for each meal: bagels for breakfast, a sandwich with my kids for lunch, and woodburning oven pizza for dinner. Okay, so why am I writing about these meals at the same time as the hoity-toity meal above? Because I think there’s also something about the way we eat now at this much more modest place— something about the way we look at chefs and the experience they provide us.
Reno comes from the restaurant group that also has Telegraph, Webster’s Wine Bar and The Bluebird, and like a lot of restaurant groups, its ambitions have risen with each new place; Telegraph in particular has seen acclaim for chef Johnny Anderes’ pastas and other dishes (and I’m happy to share the general praise). I would still call the acclaim for Telegraph rational, as opposed to the hype for Reno, whose general theme was OMG THESE ARE THE BEST EFFIN BAGELS IN THE HISTORY OF CHICAGO.
Well, okay, they’re quite good bagels— allegedly Montreal style (I can’t tell you how accurately), little handmade rings baked in the woodburning oven for a very slight smokiness, and one will cost you about as much as a half dozen at any prior bagel shop. The sandwiches are good, the pizzas are good. It’s all good, if not OMG BEST EFFIN good. It’s a credit to the neighborhood.
But what I notice about Reno is that the menu is really short. And more than short, it’s quirkily short. There are flavors of bagels you’ve never seen (Olive & Herb) and you don’t see ones you expect to see (onion, garlic, cinnamon raisin). There are about seven sandwiches, and they include things like chicken thigh or pork carnitas… but not ham and cheese, say. Most of all, the pizzas are definite creations with lots of very specific toppings— you can get a pepperoni-jalapeño pesto pizza, or a pork belly carnitas-salsa-verde-mozzarella-rajas-cotija cheese one, or a butternut-squash-sage-gruyere-cheese-walnuts one, but not, oh, sausage and mushroom. Or pepperoni without jalapeño pesto, for that matter, unless maybe you order it Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces style.
Okay, so it’s cool that they have all these interesting combinations, like there aren’t 10,000 other places to get a ham and cheese sandwich or a sausage and mushroom pizza in this town, you say. True enough, at least when the combinations really work— I thought kimchi obliterated every other flavor on the Edwards ham pizza, for instance (though curiously, the other flavors asserted themselves better the next day as leftovers). As a solo diner, okay, if the chefs want to take us on a quirky journey, I’ll buy into their vision and eat only what they want to make. As a parent, though, it makes it harder to take kids— or grandparents or a lot of other people I know— when the choices are so limited to cheffy creations like that.
Well, okay, they’re in Logan Square and their target market isn’t exactly the same as a family pizzeria. Which is my point. At one time, a very short time ago, dining according to a chef’s exacting vision for your meal was restricted to very high-end, self-consciously artistic meals at places like Grace. (Five minutes before that, chefs didn’t have artistic visions, just skills.) Now it happens at the pizza and bagel place on the corner. That’s just the way we eat now. And if there were things that you wanted changed to your personal tastes— I have the feeling that the lofty fine dining place would be quicker to change them for you than this pizza place on the corner.
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A final note: the secret of so much food journalism is the PR person behind the scenes connecting restaurants and media people; the non-media reader normally only spots it when it’s done clumsily, which means the ones who do it intelligently and, well, gracefully are too good at their job to be noticeable. But I want to call attention to the role of Jennifer Galdes, who was the pivotal person in convincing me to do something about Grace— which proved to be my widely acclaimed video series, linked above— and at the same time, in convincing the decidedly cautious Curtis Duffy to open up the process of launching Grace to me. Her steady, unpushy handling of Grace as a client was essential to its successful debut as one of the year’s most noteworthy restaurants nationwide, and I am grateful for her involvement with it— and me.