We’re used to attending pop-up dinners—but not ones hosted by a Michelin-starred chef previewing the menu of the most anticipated new restaurant in Chicago.
Critically acclaimed, avant-garde chef Curtis Duffy is not from Toronto, nor will his new restaurant Grace be situated here when it opens this fall. Still, the Chicagoan decided to give Toronto diners a sneak peek at its menu last night. (There’s another dinner tonight.) We have Colborne Lane and Origin owner chef Claudio Aprile to thank for that.
The two met more than a decade ago when Aprile was doing a stage at Chicago’s renowned Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. Duffy later helped open one of the world’s best restaurants, Alinea, in 2005 as the chef de cuisine. Aprile met up with him again there working as stage before moving on to El Bulli. Since then, the two have kept in touch and have wanted to do a dinner together, but conflicting schedules (not to mention being hundreds of kilometres apart) made it difficult. Now that Duffy is without a kitchen—the one at Grace is currently in construction mode—he had the time to fly up to Toronto and collaborate with Aprile on a $200, nine-course dinner at Colborne Lane.
Launch the photo gallery above for a close-up look at the meal
“We thought the dinner would be an original way to promote his new restaurant,” says Aprile. “We also just wanted an excuse to work together… Curtis is so advanced in his cooking. He’s been exposed to a great deal more refinement in his career, since I’m focusing on the Origin brand right now. It’s great to have the opportunity to work with someone who is still in that avant-garde world.”
Duffy earned praise working under Alinea’s chef Grant Achatz, but critics really started paying attention when he became the chef de cuisine at Avenues, the former restaurant inside the ultra-posh Peninsula Hotel in Chicago that earned two Michelin stars. He was also among the next generation of big-name chefs honoured at the James Beard Awards. For those who have never tried Duffy’s cooking, he describes it as “personality driven.”
“We put a lot of thought, energy, and research into our dishes,” he says. “[Grace is] not a spontaneous restaurant where we’re putting together dishes that change nightly or weekly. We put a lot of effort into each dish and it won’t go on the menu until we’re happy with it.”
Duffy kicked off last night’s dinner with an amuse bouche of a warm pretzel, then made a playful dish of a coconut-ginger shell swimming in a sweet corn soup. The diner is told to crack the shell open with a spoon to reveal cherries and coriander blooms underneath. It’s a dish he previously made at Avenues.
“Corn is in season and I was looking for a way to make it exciting,” says Duffy about the dish. “The thing about my food is that we want to celebrate the ingredient first and foremost before any other approach. It’s not a technique-driven cuisine, it’s the ingrident. We have corn, which any other chef can get. Now, how do you make it interesting for the diner, because they can go down the street and get corn soup. That’s where our progressiveness and thoughtfulness comes in to make it exciting, but still stay true to the ingredient so you still know what you’re eating. Let’s make a coconut dome that you have to break apart. It’s a fun and playful dish. It doesn’t need to be pretentious just because it’s at a high-end restaurant. We want you to just enjoy yourself.”
Duffy also did a scallop with toasted goat’s milk and a hibiscus sauce poured table-side, a maitake mushroom that surprisingly complemented a small dollop of bitter cocoa and dehydrated tart strawberries, and, to end, another odd yet successful combination of caramelized sudachi with cucumber.
Meanwhile, Aprile—whose dishes offer a preview of his new summer menu—concocted a lemongrass pudding, a tomato salad with a shaved-ice vinaigrette, tea-smoked and cured arctic char with Thai flavours, a perfectly seasoned ribeye, and frozen berries with dulce de leche for dessert.
For Chicago readers/visitors: Here’s what Duffy says about the highly anticipated Grace:
“It’s my first owned restaurant and we’re sitting at 64 seats with a private dining room of 12, so we’re just under 80 people,” says Duffy. “We’re housed in a 5,000 square-foot, single level space. The kitchen is a little bit bigger than the dining room. It’s not a chef’s ego thing, it just happened. The kitchen is 100 per cent custom and we have a company in Quebec working on it—from the stove to the countertops, everything is custom. It’s a great opportunity to design a kitchen around what you need as opposed to going into a kitchen and finding a way to make it work.”
He goes on to say that the dishes he created at this dinner will unlikely be on Grace’s opening menu, since most of the ingredients will be out of season. Instead, this is a way to give people an idea of what kind of food to expect.
As for what’s new for Aprile, Colborne Lane will be getting an overhaul for October. “Everything’s changing,” he says. “We’re going to do a cocktail concept in the front and it’ll look very different. I just met with the designer so a lot of things aren’t finalized yet. The menu be a series of dishes and won’t have the app, main, and dessert format but we’ll have a nightly prix fixe.”