In matters of Grace — the Chestnut Street, Portland, restaurant that went through an extraordinary transformation in 2009 from dilapidated Gothic church to stunning cathedral like dining hall — it's all about the space: colossal, striking, and wondrously gorgeous.
But something else has been added that was fleeting before: a tempting menu of imaginative dishes both sweet and savory under the direction of new chef, Peter Sueltenfuss who became head kitchen honcho this past August.
However, don’t dial up for a reservation without knowing this important fact: not all tables are created equal. There are only three choices for civilized dining in this otherworldly, spiritual room. They include anywhere along the 35-seat circular bar that gives you ringside seating to observe the scene; the banquettes that line both sides of the room — comfortable tables that are well spaced — and the upstairs gallery, which has a stunning bird’s eye view throughout the space.
What should be avoided are those tables that are flung into the middle of the room wedged up against poles — as graceful as a crook in your neck.
I see it as a serious design flaw — a breach, if you will, of feng shui. An easy solution would be to have large round tables to soften the setting rather than the current arrangement that makes one feel like the fifth wheel.
The management claims the look is all about austerity. I don’t know. When I go out to eat, asceticism is the wrong vibe, and I’d rather not feel as though I’m trapped in a Siberian halfway house with no way out.
I was there on the evening of the freakish pre-Halloween weekend snowstorm. With festivities of trick or treating underway a la Grace, a lively well-dressed party crowd started to pour in. This is a restaurant that begs to be full. When it’s not, it’s like dining with the Holy Grail.
The menu is intriguing American bistro fare. The concept is hardly ground-breaking but a newly inspired kitchen staff is striking the right culinary chord. Take, for example, a warm escarole salad with crispy sweet breads or local apples with smoked ricotta among some of the starter options. As for main courses, they’re equally compelling, from hanger steak in a mustard beer sauce to seared cod coddled by a watercress emulsion to comfort fare like a loin pork chop with grits and redeye gravy.
For a starter I chose the local pumpkin soup moistened with twirls of chestnut and pumpkin oils. The puree was requisitely silken and satisfying though it could have benefitted from more intense pumpkin flavor.
For my main course I zeroed in on the chicken preparation. For me it’s my test dish of a kitchen’s ability for something so elemental. This version used the organic bird from the North Yarmouth producer Serendipity Farms, which is one of the best farm birds around — always moist with good, wholesome flavor. The breast was cut in the French manner along with the leg and thigh settled on a very tasty mélange of wild mushrooms, foie gras and chicken sausage and light strands of spätzle.
The meal show-stopper was dessert. Here was a wedge of smoked vanilla ice cream sitting on a cookie crust with wands of caramel. It was superb. I met the pastry chef, Ilma Lopez, during Harvest on the Harbor last month and sampled some of her creations, which were terrific.
Grace has come full circle since it opened. The food is on track to please in a dining room that is as impressive looking as the kitchen is alive with creativity. The space is often used for events, so don’t be surprised if you hit on a night when either the restaurant is booked or recovering from an earlier reception.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.