Six Questions for Curtis Duffy

Duffy announced this past Monday that the haute-cuisine restaurant he plans to open this summer in the West Loop will be called Grace. He has yet to announce the address.
Dish: What will dining at Grace be like? Will the tasting menu be the only option, with no à la carte?
Curtis Duffy: We haven’t decided 100 percent on the menu format yet, but I know one option is going to be a three- or four-course menu that will be in larger portions. That is our à la carte. That is me saying the menu is designed for a specific reason. We design a menu that tells a story. When someone just picks random dishes out of that story, it’s like reading from chapter 1 to chapter 13 to chapter 48 to chapter 17. The dishes progress in size and intensify in flavor. So when somebody just picks a couple of dishes here and there [à la carte], it all of a sudden doesn’t make sense. We want to provide an overall experience of food and wine.
D: How long and how expensive do you expect a meal at Grace to be?
CD: Right now, we are planning eight to ten courses, and the dining experience lasts between two and two and a half hours. It’s still too far out to get a fair estimate as to what it’s going to cost. We would shoot ourselves in the foot to say anything now.
D: You’ve said before that you have high aspirations for Grace. Were you unable to pursue those goals at Avenues?
CD: I think what we reached at Avenues was amazing with the opportunity that I had there. I definitely felt like a caged bird. The kitchen was very small. The staff I had was very minimal. We were never able to expand on what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t at 100 percent, so if we couldn’t do it with the staff we had, we just didn’t do it.
D: What makes you different from the other fine-dining chefs in town?
CD: Our approach to ingredients, I think, is a little bit different. We take the approach that we want to keep the ingredient in its natural state and as pure as possible. We don’t add a lot of fat to the product. The end result is very clean and pure. Then we can use a lot of new, modern techniques to make it exciting for the diner to eat.
D: What’s an example?
CD: Say we want to showcase carrots. We know our palate perceives a liquid as more predominant in flavor than something that is solid. Liquid tastes better than something that is solid because it covers your entire palate. That’s why chicken soup is better than chicken. We take carrots and juice them. We can thicken it with a starch, like tapioca starch. Then you are left with a product that you have added no fat to. We did not apply any heat to it, so it’s really bright and clean. We do many things without adding fat that give you that same unctuous mouthfeel that makes you feel as though you ate something very rich.
D: Where do you hope to be ten years from now?
CD: I hope Grace is still operating and we are still doing the level of food that we are always doing. I hope we evolve quite a bit. I want to grow the brand into multiple restaurants. A couple of cookbooks, possibly. I’m not saying I would do another Grace. One is enough, but you can take the same principle of a high-end restaurant and do something less than that and achieve the same greatness.


Terms of Address

Keeping to the naming-geographically strategy, Broadway Cellars owners, Tom and Geri Foley, plan a winter 2012 opening for Southport & Irving (4004 N. Southport Ave.; 773-857-2890), in the storefront Deleece vacated when it moved a couple of blocks down Southport. Tom also serves as executive chef, and the salads, sandwiches, and entrées such as a honey-brined pork chop, zinfandel-braised short ribs, and steak au poivre will be prepared by him and the chef de cuisine, Frankie Bocardo, a former sous chef at Ceres’ Table. The dining room will seat about 75, but capacity will expand when the restaurant subsumes the former H&R Block office under construction next door—hopefully this summer. At that point, the restaurant will occupy the literal corner it’s named after. We always found it risky to name a place for its geographic home because it makes relocation problematic—but that doesn’t seem to have bothered the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.


“Fine Dining”? That’s Fine

For the past few years, restaurateurs have shied away from the phrase “fine dining” like it was Limburger cheese. A new spot near the Green Line in Oak Park has no such qualms. “The cuisine there is Asian fusion, contemporary fine dining,” says Mike Benjawan, the general manager of Seven Ocean (122 N. Marion St., Oak Park; 708-524-7979), where the diner’s only food option (allergies and dietary restrictions excepted) is the $55 seven-course tasting menu. Wine pairings cost $30. The chef/owner, Tanapat Vannopas (Tee for short), who also owns Taylor Street’s ten-year-old sushi and Thai fixture Tatsu, plans to develop a new menu every three months or so, with items like grilled prawn with shiitake mushrooms in herb-infused lemongrass broth and a fish timbale with coconut cream and red curry. The term “fine dining” may be coming back into style, but fine dining today is a far cry from the old Chateaubriand and tableside Caesar salad.



“The belly is ungrateful; it always forgets we already gave it something.” —Russian proverb


Pollack’s Dinner at Grange Hall Burger Bar in 114 Words

Smack dab in the middle of the hot-hot-hot West Loop, Grange Hall Burger Bar (844 W. Randolph St.; 312-491-0844) has the audacity to be cute and uncomplicated. With its rough-hewn communal tables, barn doors, beat-up vintage chairs, and adorable floral wallpaper, it looks like Granny Clampett decorated the place. The menu is simple: snacks to start (chips and dip, fried vegetables); beef, turkey, or veggie burgers; and a few sides (fries, onion rings). My farm-raised, grass-fed beef burger stayed juicy to the last bite. Onion rings got it right, but the “garlicky macaroni and cheese” needed, uh, garlic. The hot-fudge sundae instantly melted into a soupy mess, but, hey, that’s what spoons are for.


Marquis Performer

Dan Marquis won a competition with the New York state chef Cara Thompson for the executive-chef gig at Quay (465 E. Illinois St.; 312-981-8400) on the episode of Chef Hunter that aired this past Thursday. He told us about what the show looked like from his perspective. (His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
“I was told about the show about three or four days before the actual taping. When we met with the producers, the day before the taping, they told us to write the menu and place an order that night. All the product comes in the morning and you start cooking. They allowed us three hours to prepare. As soon as the time was up, I left and came back when my service started. When you watch the show, it looks like two separate days, but it all happens on one day. It’s two seatings, different diners. Neither one of us had any more time than the other. My favorite dish of the night was the scallop dish with braised short ribs, parsnip purée, and black kale. It’s a really great dish. They brought us both out and announced the winner. I worked really hard for the last ten-plus years to get here.”


A Razón in the Sun

“There is a tagline,” says Nash Cvetkovski of Razón (4250 N. Marine Dr.; no phone yet), his restaurant of American food with French, Spanish, and Italian influences that he hopes to open next month. “Razón: It’s personal.” Huh? “It’s what we are trying to do—create an urban food factory.” Cvetkovski further clarifies that this means homemade gourmet food from local ingredients, made for a “casual-to-upscale” dining room and a coffee shop with grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, and bistro boxes for the Lake Shore Drive foot traffic. Wood-fired pizza will be available starting at 10 a.m. Some sample dishes are calamari with smoked-jalapeño aïoli and grilled lemon, and the signature burger with smoked Gouda, grilled portobello mushrooms, tomato confit, sweet-potato chips, and mixed baby greens. The café and meat market Beograd in the Irving Park neighborhood has been Cvetkovski’s family’s business for 30 years, so despite the tagline, for Cvetkovski the food industry is more than just personal. 


On Twitter

  • Details about the upcoming David Morton/Michael Kornick venture trickle out, and then trickle back in.
  • Cai leaves Pollack with no taste in her mouth.
  • The Peking duck dog from Franks ’n’ Dawgs is Chinatown-ready.
  • The brisket sandwich at Hearty steals Pollack's heart.

Follow Pollack on Twitter.


Things to Do

1. Live dangerously and order fugu (a notorious, seasonal Japanese fish that can be lethal to consume if prepared incorrectly) at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge (358 W. Ontario St.; 312-335-9888), which is the Midwest’s only restaurant licensed to serve the blowfish. The elusive fugu will be available from tomorrow until they run out, and reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance.

2. Get an early taste of Autre Mondes (6727 W. Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn; 708-775-8122) brunch at a sneak preview Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Chef Dan Pancake will prepare items from the menu that he plans to roll out January 13, such as a stick-to-your-ribs shrimp and grits riff, made with giant prawns and Spence Farm polenta ($13).

3. Order a copy of Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Past, Present and Future, a highly giftable, coffee-table-worthy scrapbook by Neal Samors and Eric Bronsky (with a foreword penned by our own Penny Pollack).


Dot Dot Dot . . .

Naf Naf Grill brings freshly baked pita sandwiches to Niles with the launch of its third suburban location tomorrow at 5716 West Touhy Avenue. . . . The Chicago-based social-dining network Grubwithus released a create-your-own feature, allowing groups to select details such as date, neighborhood, and meal price. The network then arranges a meal matching those parameters at one of its 125-plus partner restaurants, which include Girl & the Goat, Chicago Q, and Le Colonial. . . . Grub Street Chicago reported that the bánh mì favorite Nhu Lan Bakery is matching its rival Ba Le and opening a second location. Nhu Lan’s Saigon Subs is planned for the former Cloud 9 space at 604 West Belmont Avenue, in the epicenter of the bánh mì nexus (Bun Mi Express, Banh Mi & Co.) burgeoning in east Lake View.