Grace is the Word
Ben Vaughn's new restaurant Grace elevates the experience of eating.
Recently, I fell in love again. It took me by surprise, but I suppose falling in love always seems to happen when we least expect it. In the middle of it, I remembered a few things. Love is exhilarating. It's scary. It's also a maddening, roiling mix of emotions hitting all at once. Everywhere you look, there it is, plain as day, knocking any last bit of common sense right out of you. Well, this time around, the object of my affection is a restaurant.
All of this happened when I had lunch and dinner at Grace, chef Ben Vaughn's new place in Cooper-Young. Even though I've tried to put a moratorium on it, I cannot stop thinking about the food that's being served there. I can't fixate on anything in particular for too long since the menu is constantly evolving, transformed by the seasons. Going to eat at Grace after not eating there for a while is a thrilling experience because of what's become available from local growers and suppliers in the meantime. I wanted to go back again and again to check out what was different.
I stopped by for lunch mid-week, and it turned out to be the kind of meal that I will remember for years. I don't often have the opportunity to linger for two-plus hours over a lunch of many courses, but whether it's due to the menu, the atmosphere, or simply the chef's point of view, Grace seems to invite that kind of indulgence and bountifully reward it. There's outside patio seating, a handcrafted bar at the front of the house, and a well-appointed lounge area at the entry. Gigantic hanging window frames enclose the main seating area, which is slim with double rows of tables.
We started with an appetizer of truffled cheese, a tangle of very thinly sliced and fried redhead onions, painstakingly peeled red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, and a balsamic reduction. Complimentary brioche, burnished and steaming, buttery and feather-light, already the subject of much local gossip and fervor, was presented. Next, we sampled the spicy house-made pimento cheese sandwich on buttered and grilled bread with local tomatoes and greens. This was a down-home Southern favorite gone big-time due to the ingredients and execution. I also enjoyed the oyster bread pudding, a rich golden orb enhanced even further by a smattering of microgreens and a pool of beurre blanc. The portions are not overwhelming, and that's a good thing; the flavors are so concentrated, so knowingly constructed and complete, that small bites are called for to best appreciate the care that has been lavished upon each dish.
For my entrée, I selected the seared tuna with basil gelato and heirloom tomato salad. The sides were just as well-thought-out as the main dish, and this tasted clean and light. Grace also offers a daily vegetarian entrée, and on this day, we sampled a yellow pepper risotto topped with five varieties of peas, including whippoorwill and lady peas, just brought in that same morning from the farm, along with a small stack of pommes frites with garlic aioli.
At the end of our meal, the blueberry cornmeal crumble with chévre gelato called to me. Literally a bed of crumbles topped with warmed blueberries, this was a dessert that had been deconstructed to be put back together in a fresh way. The sharpness of the goat cheese in the gelato was a shocking complement. Next came the polenta-peach cake with cream, dense with the sweetness of the corn equal to that of the peaches. Both desserts were creative and a little savory, and they showcased the end-of-summer fruit well.
Walking into Grace one night a couple of weeks later for dinner, I was impressed by the flowers, maroonish-black calla lilies fanned out at the entry and purple gerber daisies perched in modern bud vases on the tables. We sat down and noticed that the menu, as promised, already featured many new dishes just a couple of weeks after we first visited.
We were offered still, sparkling, or tap water; two bottled waters were Italian, and in the spirit of indulgence, I chose one to try. Surprisingly, it did taste somewhat different from our good Memphis tap even to skeptical me. Our first appetizer, quiche with bianco sottobosco cheese and créme fraiche, was topped with sun-dried tomato butter that slowly melted over the crusty top. The second appetizer I tried was simply called "tomatoes." They were fried green tomatoes, crisp and smooth, served with Bonnie Blue Farms chévre and a spiced pecan sorghum emulsion. All of the flavors — the creamy cheese, the acidity of the green tomatoes, and the slight sweetness of the dish — came together perfectly.
For my entrée, I selected a pairing of moulard duck breast and Arkansas quail, both of which were accompanied by caramelized acorn squash risotto, white balsamic gastrique, and a bit of duck prosciutto thrown in for good measure. I appreciated the reasonable-portion sizes at Grace; everything's arranged so colorfully, deliberately, and prettily in the center of the plate that it's almost a shame to disrupt it. My companion's choice of entrée was a smooth, creamy tomato polenta accompanied by farmers market ratatouille, with zucchini, squash, onions, and tomatoes minutely and painstakingly diced, and a garnish of dark, roasted caramelized onions redolent of coffee and chocolate. I was so happy to be focused on the play of flavors, textures, and combinations without feeling stuffed, and I think that's one of the high points of my meals at Grace. It isn't only about eating; it's about elevating the experience of eating, and it makes each dish seem like a revelation.
For dessert, we chose the profiteroles with chocolate ganache served in a tiny pitcher and vanilla bean gelato on the side. Crisp and flaky, the profiteroles had a homespun and handmade appearance; the ganache and the gelato were there to hit the sweet notes. We also tried a brioche and banana bread pudding soufflé with a peanut butter cream sauce; as we watched in anticipation, our server gently cracked the souffle with a spoon and poured the sauce over the entirety of it.
Service at Grace is brisk, efficient, and focused. During both lunch and dinner, I took note of the servers' attention to detail: Water glasses are promptly refilled, my napkin was folded and placed on the back of my seat when I returned to it, and the menu recommendations came across as honest and knowledgeable.
Frankly, it is a privilege to have this gift of a restaurant right here in Memphis. I find myself so impressed with the sensibility — a mix of local, detail-driven, and Southern cuisine by way of French technique comes to mind — that is embodied by Grace. I reveled in my unexpected, newfound love for each dish I tried during my visits. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's dulled every other experience I have had dining out in the meantime. The meals I enjoyed at Grace made one thing clear: The vast distance between like and love has never been more certain.