Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Search for Perfection at Chicago's Grace

Reservation required?  YES- Make sure you book this 3-star well in advance (give yourself at least a month or two) to snag a seat at in this small, intimate space.

Atmosphere: Grace is on the more formal end of the Michelin star establishments we have dined at, with most men in jackets (with or without tie) and many women in long gowns.  The colour scheme is neutral (beige, white, black) and furnishings are very simple with 2-seater booths on one side and generously-spaced circular tables filling the rest of the small room.  The semi-open kitchen is right at the back, and if you are lucky you might be offered a tour at the conclusion of your meal.

Service: Despite the very formal decor, the service is very approachable.  Both our server and sommelier were very open to chatting about the food, entertaining our questions and making our evening very enjoyable.  Having said that, the service was executed like clock work, with our dishes being placed on the table in perfect synchrony, our water and wine glasses]s being filled at all times, and very precise spacing between dishes.

Food: There are two choices at Grace, the "Flora" (vegetable) and "Fauna" (meat/seafood) tasting menus.  There are also wine pairings available, which I would highly recommend.  The pairings are not excessive in quantity (about 2.5-3 glasses total) with a nice variety of styles and vintages.  The tasting menus offer about 10-12 courses, starting with a few bites, then some lighter dishes, followed by a couple more substantial savoury dishes, then ending with 3 sweet dishes.  We left feeling full but not overstuffed.   Grace does not do "showy" food (no liquid nitrogen to be found here) but the dishes are anything but boring.  Chef Duffy is a master with using complex flavours and textures such that every single bite offers a new surprise.  There are flavours from multiple different backgrounds (thai, italian, french) and his use of herbs and spices is ingenious.  I was very impressed with the creativity behind the food and the spectacular presentation.

Pre-dinner "bites" plated on honeycomb

Various breads with salted butter and herb butter:


Heart of palm- ginger, mint, coriander

Salsify- jasmine, trout roe, shiso

Asparagus- osetra caviar, potato, spring onion

English pea, ricotta, olive oil, lavender

Carrot- green strawberry, hazelnut, amaranth

Australian Black Truffle- sweet corn, pecorino, parsley

Blood Orange- vanilla, tangerine lace (both menus)

Strawberry- sunflower, elderlflower, verbana

Chocolate- grapefruit, chartreuse, celery heart


Guinea Hen- ramp, radish, chive blossom

Alaskan King Crab- sudachi, cucumber, lemon mint 

Bay Scallops- white poppy, romaine, nasturtium

Pork- gnudi, porcini, spinach

Squab- beet, fig, endive

Miyazaki Beef- grains, hon shimeji, kaffir lime

Huckleberry- honey, fenugreek, basil

Cashew- cocao, creme fraiche, hoja santa

Melon "bursts"

Chocolate caramels (a little gift for our anniversary)

Overall Verdict?
Grace is a truly special place.  It combines traditional formality with the congenial, approachable service that diners have come to appreciate.  The experience is rounded out with creative and thought-provoking food inspired by flavours from around the world.  It is clear that Chef Duffy sets very high standards for his work and expects the same from those who work with him.  It was an honour to dine at an establishment that strives for such perfection for its guests.

Grace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Pushing the Boundaries of the Imagination at Alinea

Reservations required?  YES, in fact you will need to buy tickets for Alinea, with booking opening in the middle of the month, 2 months prior to your requested time.  Tickets for the whole month sell out within minutes.  Despite being on the minute the tickets were released, we got seats in the Salon at our preferred time but could not get near the Gallery.  Snagging a seat in the Gallery likely takes a more liberal choice of dates and a good stroke of luck!  To reserve the Chef's Table, you will need a group of 6, or alternatively a smaller number who are willing to cover the cost of the six seats.

Atmosphere:  The Alinea intrigue begins the moment you get to the door and wonder if you are at the right place.  You are greeted by 2 heavy black doors, with no identifying sign to be found.  After stepping into a small foyer where a friendly face will greet you and confirm that you have indeed made it to the right place, you are led into a second room that houses the Gallery downstairs and the Salon upstairs (divided into 2 smaller rooms.  The furniture and wall decor is fairly muted, but our table was kept alive all night with a procession of surprises, starting with a bowl of oranges that would be brought alive with dry ice, then a bowl of salt that as caught on fire, and finished off with an edible balloon.  There will not be a dull moment.

Service:  The wait staff at Alinea have mastered the ability to keep the service down to earth and fun, while still maintaining the level of finesse that is expected at a three-michelin star establishment.  The servers knew every component of every dish (quite a feat when food is this complex!), the sommelier expertly guided us through the wine list and helped us choose the perfect bottle of wine, and food arrived out the of kitchen at a synchronized and precise pace.  Despite this level of attention to detail, every server we met seemed more than happy to drop by for a chat, joke around and genuinely seem thrilled that we were in our glee.  We left feeling like we had made a new group of friends.

Food: Grant Achatz and his team are producing food that is magical, whimsical and playful, while still maintaining a degree of sophistication, elegance and grace.  Each of our dishes in our tasting menu was perfectly executed and the meal as a whole sought to stimulate all the sense.  Aromatics were placed on the table to compliment and highlight the flavours in the food being served, and a few dishes had a "finger food" to bring in  a tactile component.  Achatz' team is anything but simple.  Take one look at his cookbook, and you will learn that every dish he creates has no less than 5 different parts, which each have 10-20 ingredients in them.  as such, every bite is bound to be a very pleasant surprise.
Here is a peak at the dishes that we enjoyed.  As we were told by one of our servers, every dish is in constant evolution so you are unlikely to have the same meal from one week, or even one day, to the next.  For a completely new menu, we were told to wait about 4 months between visits, after which most dishes (except the balloon!) should be completely new.

Spear- avocado, coriander

Osetra- banana pancake, allium (not shown)

Crunch- rouille, nori

Paper- langoustine, bouillabaisse, olive oil

Garden- orange, sherry, tomato

Bocadillo- manchego, jamon (onion jam substitution for pescatarian menu)

Black bass, shellfish, kuzu

Yellow- pork belly, curry, mango (not shown)

Yellow- squid, curry, mango (pescatarian substitute)

Glass- blueberry, lapsang souchong, maitake

Spud- truffle, midwest dairy (the potato was buried in this bowl of salt and fire at our table prior to being turned into a potato salad made tableside)

Toast- gruyere, black truffle, pumpernickel

Bean- tenderloin, spices (salsify in pescatarian menu)

Smoke- veal chekk, pineaple, hearts of palm (salmon in pescatarian menu)

Rock- sweet potato, truffle, miso

Nostalgia- bumblegum, cake, banana

Ballon- helium, grape (not shown)- they are never taking this one off the menu, so you will have to go experience it for yourself!

Overall Verdict?  
I had very high expectations for Alinea and it lived up to every one of them.  My only regret?  Not getting a spot in the Gallery or the Chef's Table to taste even more of Chef Achatz and his team's genius.  Rest assured Alinea, we will return!

Alinea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Drinks and Snacks in Kits? Try Cacao Upstairs

I have previously written about my fondness for Cacao, bringing Latin American food to Kits (see my full review here).  I was therefore delighted to hear about the opening of its new summer addition,  a patio on the second floor aptly names "Cacao Upstairs".

The space has a small indoor seating area beside the bar, complete with a smart looking fish tank (find  Nemo and you may get a free drink!), as well as limited outdoor seating overlooking West 1st.  We had the whole space to ourselves on a late Sunday evening two weeks after opening, but we were told that business picks up quite a bit more during happy hour (5-7pm, Thursday-Sunday).

The patio has a limited menu of small sharing dishes or "snacks" in contrast to the more elaborate tasting menu in the downstairs space, as well as a nice collection of house-made cocktails.  All cocktails have a nice description accompanying the name to help you find what you are looking for (ex. sweet, bitter, sour, etc).  Some of the dishes were familiar from our downstairs experience, but are adapted to share.  The Cacao menu is usually changed up every month or so, and expect the upstairs to follow suit.

Here is a look at what we enjoyed:

 Ceviche- tuna and avocado


Beef arepa

For those looking for a quieter, more "grown up" patio after a day at the back, Cacao Upstairs is for you.  Cacao has already proven itself to be a great spot for lunch and dinner, so I have every reason to believe that they will be just as successful in this new venture!  

Cacao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato