12 October 2009

Dinner at Grace

Ben and Grace had dinner at Grace, which is run by Ben, but Grace wasn't there.

Wait... That doesn't make any sense. Fortunately Renaissance theatre shows the way: a comedy of errors like this demands a proper dramatis personæ!

Ben Carter - Me
Ben Vaughn - Chef and founder of Grace Restaurant
Original Grace - My friend
Grace Restaurant - The restaurant
la fille Grace - Chef Vaughn's young daughter, for whom the restaurant is named
Marshall "Mars" Sanchez - Original Grace's significant other and general manager of the restaurant (there's not another Mars in this story, but I just wanted to clarify that the Roman God of War wasn't stopping by our table to check on things in the little-used deus ex culina literary device)

All we need is a little cross-dressing and a marriage proposal and we've got ourselves a Shakespearean classic. And yes, the temptation to write this tale in iambic pentameter was strong.

ACT I

Original Grace invited me out to dinner as a belated birthday present. And frankly it was getting to the point that if I didn't eat at the restaurant soon, I was going to be kidnapped by her and forcibly taken there blindfolded. As much fun as that might have been, I accepted her... gracious invitation and sat down to an 8 p.m. table at 938 S. Cooper. We placed ourselves in the skilled hands of the chef, and the following is what we ate.

Note: I'd suggest a starter ($10-12) followed by an entrée ($25-30) and dessert. We tasted through a bunch of plates here, due to the various webs of friendship involved, and the fact that the restaurant is still in a soft open phase: testing recipes and waiting on its liquor license. So maybe this isn't purely objective on my part, but it was an amazing dinner and I had a lot of fun. Why not share it with the readers? Plus it was a birthday present from the lovely and generous Original Grace. If the descriptions of the individual dishes don't inspire you to call for a reservation... wait a week and there will be a whole new menu incorporating local, seasonal ingredients wherever possible.

I took the photos handheld with ambient lighting; they are blurry in places, but I didn't want to disturb other diners with the flash. Plus I was pretty excited to dig in to each new and amazing course. As always, click the thumbnails for larger versions.

ACT II

As stated above, at the time of writing, the restaurant does not have their liquor license. Beer is available, and you're welcome to bring your own wine. Hopefully the license will come through soon, so be sure to ask about the status when you call to reserve a table. I got to take a sneak peek at the wine list, and while it's still in progress the focus will be on France, Italy, and Spain, with a handful of prominent Californians. I brought a bottle of a well-rounded Italian white that I felt would go with a wide range of ingredients.

The $15 2007 Santi Soave Classico Vigneti di Monteforte comes from northeast Italy and is comprised of Garganega with a bit of Trebbiano. There's an initial earthy, funky aroma that gives way to a spicy, full-bodied white with an apricot profile. Dry, not too tart, not flabby, a pretty well-rounded wine. Soaves have been getting some more attention recently, but they're not so popular that the prices have risen. Yet another fun, delicious, and affordable wine from the boot.

The first course is pictured here with a split-open brioche roll. The Grace brioche is becoming pretty well-known through word of mouth. It's crispy and crusty like a good roll, but on the inside it's soft and delicate, and there's so much butter involved in the production that it tastes more like a croissant than anything else.

We started out with the seared bigeye tuna, accompanied by skinned heirloom cherry tomatoes and a basil gelato. We had multiple gelati throughout the evening--a machine was inherited from the prior occupants, a dessert restaurant. Instead of purely sweet applications, Grace Restaurant has developed a series of herbal and savory gelati. The tuna was amazing, the tomatoes were bursting with tart juice, and the gelato provided a pure essence of basil along with a creamy texture that you couldn't get from a simple emulsion of herbs and sour cream, for instance.

For the second course, the chef sent out portions of Apalachicola oyster bread pudding. It's sort of like a cross between oyster stuffing and a crab cake, but distinct and delicious in its own way. Served with a rémoulade sauce and garnished with--to my pure joy--a slice of spicy pickled okra.

This had the consistency of bread pudding combined with the seasoning of a crab cake, and the oysters were just barely cooked. Oyster stuffing tends to get overcooked and the bivalves become tough and rubbery, but these were still soft, tender, and distinct as big chunks of oyster. My wine was holding up well here, but this really called out for a good sparkling wine. Though a beer would go well if you were having this for lunch.

ACT III

I'll take a moment to point out here that for a new restaurant, everything was running smoothly and efficiently in the dining room. I got to see a couple of cycles of diners, and even witnessed a few moments like a customer breaking a wine glass handled with deft attention. Courses appeared with military precision, Mars kept an eye on the comings and goings of the customers, and best of all, I saw a lot of happy faces leaving even happier. I've eaten at restaurants that had terrible food and great service, as well as vice versa. It's wonderful when both parts are working harmoniously.

With a loosening of the belt and an additional glass of water, it was time for the third course. From the bottom up: a corn cake, thicker than a johnnycake but thinner than a corn muffin; a layer of cheese (Gruyère?); a prawn the size of a small lobster tail; a bit of flaky cod around the edges, and a light lemon-butter sauce. A garnish of microgreens on this and other courses. I enjoyed growing the little plants a few years ago and love the peppery, green flavor.

This far from the coast we're not accustomed to shrimp the size of a baby's fist, so I was pretty excited to see this on the table. The prawns were perfectly cooked, buttery and rich with a flavor closer to shrimp than lobster. The corn cake was great as well, and the whole combination was a savory pleasure.

ACT IV

We had a brief intermezzo of more basil gelato in a tiny stemmed glass, just a bit to cleanse the palate before the fourth course. And what a course it was...

I am a lamb fanatic, and while I appreciate the shank after a long stew and a quickly grilled leg, the rack is my longtime favorite. But I've never had it smoked. This half rack (four ribs) was lightly smoked and cooked to a beautiful medium rare. In this, the worst of my photos but finest food of the evening, I've cut the "ribeye roast" off in order to expose the texture of the meat. It was some of the best lamb I've ever had, but the sides were great as well: an insanely rich low-country dirty rice made with mushrooms and foie gras, and a fennel gelato. (I know this sounds like a lot of gelato, but keep in mind most folks aren't going to be running a gastronomic marathon through this many courses.)

While I'd admitted defeat halfway through the lamb, there was one more course awaiting us... dessert. Between the two of us we sampled several of the treasures from the restaurant's talented pastry chef. Original Grace had a bit of homemade ice cream with knots of puff pastry and a small pot of fresh, warm chocolate sauce. I was presented with the trio of a dark bread pudding (broken and topped with a sweet vanilla cream sauce by the waiter); upside-down peach cake with homemade ice cream, and homemade baklava topped with Roquefort and a few caramelized nuts. Lord have mercy, I did not have the strength for all of this. I tried a bit of each and begged for a to-go box so that I could enjoy it at a later time.

ACT V

I spent a rainy Friday night with a dear friend, and several new friends, in the setting of a cozy candlelit restaurant in the heart of Cooper-Young. This neighborhood already feels like a world away from Memphis... While I was dining, I was chatting with the manager, and the chef and his wife were both there, working together and talking to the diners. With a small but constantly adapting menu based off local ingredients and seasonal quality, I really felt like I was in Europe, in some little bistro or trattoria. I love this city. It's my home, and when I walk into a BBQ joint there's no illusion as to where I am on this planet. But part of the magic of proper dining out is stepping into a fantasy world for a couple of hours. If you'd like to enjoy some of that feeling, give Grace Restaurant a try. I can't wait to see what sort of dishes are going to emerge from that kitchen as the afternoons darken, the ground hardens, and we slide into winter.

12 comments:

Allen said...

Having enjoyed Ben Vaughn for a number of years at River Oaks, I am looking forward to dinning at Grace. Your description of the oyster bread pudding may require getting a few orders to go.

Benito said...

Dad,

I'll be honest, the high-water mark for bread pudding will always be the dearly departed Café Roux version, with one side of the plate in vanilla sauce and one side in whiskey sauce. But the dessert pudding at Grace was very good.

However, the oyster bread pudding has me thinking about savory varieties...

Cheers,
Benito

Original Grace said...

I expected great things, but this far exceeded my expectations. It was by far the best meal I've had in Memphis. Give me any excuse to go back.

Happy late birthday. At least it was within 30 days this time. I hope it was worth the wait.

Benito said...

Grace,

Whoa--better than the guinea hen? I'll settle for "best restaurant meal in Memphis". ;)

Can't thank you enough for arranging such an awesome present. You rock.

Cheers,
Benito

Original Grace said...

The guinea hen was by far the best fowl ice had in Memphis. A lot of the thanks should go to mars since he did most of the arranging. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

I still think we need a trip to the ghetto benihana sometime soon. We need to introduce Mars to that little Memphis jewel.

Benito said...

For the benefit of those readers outside of my immediate circle of friends, the "Ghetto Benihana" is the Nagasaki Inn, which provides the teppanyaki experience at a fraction of the cost.

It's well-known around Memphis as being one of the most fun cheap dates in town. It's not particularly expensive to begin with, but a 2-for-1 coupon is printed in the newspaper every Friday.

Some day I'll do a long story on all the dates I've had at the Nagasaki over the years... I'll probably have to move out of Memphis first.

fredric koeppel said...

wonderful review, as it were, of a graceful new restaurant. I had lunch there Friday, with the tuna and the toasted pimento cheese and the baklava. lovely.

Big Mike said...

Ben,
Great review. I have eaten, at Grace, both lunch and dinner and had the same expierence, very good! Missed you at the Beast Feast. Your dad, dave and I had a blast even if it did rain a bit. Hope to have you back next year! Like always enjoy reading your posts. By the way, great piece in the flyer,and thanks for the mention.

RestaurantZoom said...

Ben the food pictures are amazing and mouth watering. Oyster bread pudding sounds very intriquing for sure:-) Thanks!

Samantha Dugan said...

That prawn dish looks wicked good and the lamb, (drool) looks perfect. See, now there is another reason for me to head to Memphis!

Benito said...

Fredric & Mike,

Glad to hear that y'all have checked it out. I love to take out-of-town guests to Cooper-Young, there's so much interesting going on right now.

Sam,

Rest assured, you will eat well if you come here. :)

Cheers,
Benito

Kristin Runnels said...

soooo...did you end up going back over the winter to see what they had "cooked up"?