Sky Full of Bacon

One idea I had early on for a Sky Full of Bacon video was following a restaurant from beginning to opening— seeing the decisions that are made behind the scenes that shape the diner’s experience in often invisible ways. But I didn’t have the contacts to get in on the opening of a major restaurant from the beginning. Until I was at Grub Street Chicago, and I was approached about doing something about one of the biggest openings of the year, Grace, from former Alinea #2 Curtis Duffy, very early in the process. Hey, I have just the idea for how to cover that, I said.

And so in late March I met with Duffy and his architect in the gutted space to talk about how this blank canvas would become Duffy’s vision of a restaurant:

Construction is a long process, but it’s not the only thing happening in the development of a restaurant during those many months. In May I met with chef Duffy and his new manager/sommelier, Michael Muser, to talk about how you create a wine list for a restaurant that doesn’t exist yet:

By July they were starting to get the restaurant’s furnishings in, and so we talked plates, glasses, silverware, and how you shape the guest experience with all of them:

In September I returned to the space, built out but far from finished, to talk about how the restaurant was designed to facilitate a certain service flow that maximizes both efficiency and the gracefulness of the guest experience:

The restaurant was finally ready to open in December. I returned on their very first night of paying service, a week before the official opening, to conclude the story:

(To see the original posts that ran nationally at Grub Street announcing the videos, click on the months highlighted in the text above.)

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The fourth chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

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The third chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Finding Grace 3: Plates from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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Almost four years ago, I had a stunningly good meal at Avenues under its then-chef Graham Elliott Bowles (two-thirds of whom is now his own restaurant). And as was my wont then, I posted a course-by-course description of the meal with pictures.

Well, it’s a different world now.  Avenues has a new chef, Curtis Duffy late of Alinea, who has had some raves and some pans.  I don’t feel like taking picture by picture accounts of dinners, or writing plate by plate ones; in fact I often don’t feel like reading such things, for fear of losing the novelty which is certainly a big part of what you’re paying for in a “conceptual dining” restaurant (as I called them the other day).

But if I can find a treatise on Communism in a place that simply hadn’t gotten up to speed one Sunday morning, surely I can find some big picture thoughts on a meal this elaborate, right?  Let’s scan our experience for a theme:

1) The tasting course menu is so over. Well, the novelty is somewhat gone, but the basic Thomas Keller theory behind it— that you only really enjoy 1 or 2 bites of something, so why serve more— still holds true for this kind of food (I’d like to see him sell that idea in a Texas bbq joint, though).  I have to say I enjoyed the progression of things (which, incidentally, came fast and furious, good for them)…

2) The tasting menu is the dominant paradigm for chefs today. Maybe.  But after having 20-some things at Avenues, a certain sameness crept in.  Nearly every plate involved little dabs of this which looked like one thing but turned out to be another (eg, “wasabi” made out of some green, pureed), and least appealingly, something turned into a sandy powder.  Looking back it’s hard to remember specific things that stood out because there were just so many flavors in such tiny quantities.  In fact…

3. Molecular gastronomy may aim too low. I felt like too often, dishes had gone below the integrity of the ingredient, I wanted more things to be enhanced by the dibs and dabs around them, and fewer deconstructed.  The best things I had were anchored in some ingredient that delivered lushness and delight on its own— Faroe Island salmon belly, golden osetra caviar, a simple carrot (below)— and could just be flavored or filigreed a little by the powders and goos on the plate.

Looking back on this menu after two weeks— and even with a printed menu in my hand— it has all blurred together in a way that makes it hard for me to remember individual dishes; my memory, somewhat unfairly, is more of grit on a plate than of something that opened my eyes to new wonders.  I definitely came away with less of a sense of a few marvels, a few wonderfully new combinations, than I did from Duffy’s old boss Achatz’s meal at Trio or even from a rather mixed meal at Bowles’ Graham Elliott.  Now, I should point out that one of our dining companions found the meal more appealing than his recent meal at Alinea, precisely because it didn’t seem to be working him over so hard to make him go “Wow!”  In general we were reasonably satisfied with things, liked things pretty well as they happened, but it’s taken me two weeks to post about this meal because the more I think about it, the less I know what I think.

Service was extremely friendly and conscientious; bread service is excellent, but a champagne offering early on, though generous with tastes, proved really to me to be a chance for them to add a substantial amount to the bill while proving that if there’s a difference between pretty good and great champagne, I don’t know what it is.  (Somebody here tasted all kinds of notes that flew by me.)  We had a very pleasant evening with our fellow diners, and that may have contributed to my not examining this meal with the microattention I have devoted to others in the past, but as capable as Curtis Duffy clearly is— and much of this stuff is the kind of thing only someone with remarkable skills can pull off— I can’t say I feel like he’s yet capable of conceptualizing from beginning to end a 20-course meal on quite the auteurist level that other top directors, I mean chefs, like Achatz or Michael Carlson have achieved.

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