A glass-walled kitchen gives Curtis Duffy's Chicago restaurant some theatre for his "thoughtful progressive" menu philosophy. Andy Lynes reports
Right now, Curtis Duffy is one of the hottest chefs in the USA. He opened Grace, his first restaurant, in December 2012 and it has already topped Chicago magazine's list of the 20 best new restaurants in the city and was nominated for ‘Best new restaurant' in the prestigious James Beard Awards. Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel said: "It will be one of Chicago's finest restaurants for years to come."
But Duffy is no stranger to accolades. His stint at another cutting-edge Chicago restaurant, Trio, won him the title of ‘Best innovative pastry chef' from Food and Wine magazine in 2003; Alinea was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine while Duffy was chef de cuisine under Grant Achatz; and he won two Michelin stars as head chef of the now-closed Avenues at Chicago's Peninsula hotel.
With Grace, he is looking to top those achievements. "I eventually want to be a three-Michelin-starred chef and Grace to be talked about worldwide," says Duffy.
Everything seems to be in place to achieve those ambitions. Situated in Chicago's West Loop ‘restaurant row', the former picture-framing shop has been transformed by architects Lawton Stanley into a luxurious space. Black ash wood has been used throughout the 64-cover room and 14-seat private dining room, with the service bar and waiters' stations hidden from diners' view.
Centrepiece The pièce de résistance is the glass-walled kitchen, designed by Tim Harrison, who also created the kitchen at the French Laundry. White worktops, floor-to-ceiling black ash spice cabinet and adjustable lighting make it an appealing sight for diners.
Duffy offers two nine-course tasting menus, both priced at $185 (£120): the vegetarian Flora and vegetable-led Fauna, which includes meat and fish. "The diversity of vegetables is really important to me and is what is exciting," says Duffy. "Beef is beef, but you've got 30 varieties of carrots, all different shapes and sizes, that you can do more interesting things with."
He serves a tasting plate of the vegetable fried, roasted, pickled and as a purée reformed to look like a whole baby carrot. The dish is finished with braised pistachio, passion fruit and mascarpone.
Although the menus change seasonally, some dishes vary far more often. "I look at the seasons as 52 weeks a year because things change so rapidly that we have to stay on top of it week by week," says Duffy.
"When we're closed on Monday, I spend six hours on the phone talking to all my farmers, fishmongers and foragers, lining things up for the week, because they can tell us what we have and what's in season."
Duffy relies on part-time stand-up comedian Dave Odd for much of his foraged ingredients, such as sassafras root from southern Illinois which is served as part of an extra course reserved for VIP guests. "We peel the root and cook it sous vide with celery root, then blend it to a purée and serve it with crab, tapioca and young green almonds in a hollowed-out horned melon, which the guest holds as they eat, which gives a textural sensation," he says.
Duffy's signature kampachi (fatty tuna) dish embodies what he calls his "thoughtful progressive" approach: "Thoughtful because of the amount of time from when we conceptualise the idea of a dish to the point it makes it to the menu; progressive comes from using new techniques to help push the cuisine further."
The stunningly presented cold salad of raw fish with pomelo, basil cashews, golden trout roe, coconut noodles and fresh coconut meat set on jasmine rice pudding is served inside a ginger-scented cylinder of ice that is cracked open by the guest.
"I experimented with the dish at home before the restaurant opened," says Duffy. "Michael Joy of the Chicago School of Mould Making created 25 different moulds over a three-month period until we found a way to remove the cylinder from the sleeve without it breaking."
Duffy's 17-strong brigade is often increased to more than 20 by stagiaires and externs, who come from all over the world. Despite its youth, Grace already has the reputation of a far more established restaurant.
"We have ambitions of opening other restaurants and publishing cookbooks," says Duffy. "But most of all, we still want to be here in 25 years' time."
Sample dishes from the menu
- Osietra caviar, Meyer lemon, kumquat jam, chive blossom
- White asparagus, grilled ramp, glass noodle, mint
- Scottish salmon, crispy red cabbage, citrus pudding, marigold
- Artichoke, Sicilian pistachio, sweet curry, dandelion
- Grilled Miyazaki beef, king trumpet, salsify, mashua leaf Lamb, kale, parsley root, miner's lettuce
- Young coconut, lime, huckleberry, African blue basil
- Rhubarb, chartreuse, Buddha's hand, toasted brioche, lemon balm
- Dark chocolate, raw chestnut, mandarin, lemon mint
652 West Randolph Street
00 1 312 2349494