chef ted of grace

Phil Vettel gives 3 stars to Grace, Randolph Street's hottest newcomer, where chef/owner Ted Cizma proves he's a master with game meats.

Photo by James Crump

Amazing Grace
Randolph's newest face hears the call of the wild
By Phil Vettel

The venison loin, stuffed with blackberries and surrounded by a blackberry-thyme demiglace sauce, is a standout item on Grace's game-heavy menu.
Photo by James Crump

I'm violating one of my own rules in this review. I'm giving three stars to a restaurant that tops its tables with -- gads -- brown paper. Brown paper, on which even water drops look like grease spots, is the worst restaurant feature since the baseball-bat-sized pepper mill.

And yet when it comes to Grace, the newest face on the red-hot Randolph Street restaurant strip, I'm inclined to be, well, gracious. I like this place so much that even that godawful brown paper can't foul my mood.

Grace sits next to Blackbird, a restaurant that has garnered considerable acclaim in the last year, and what a pretty couple they make. Both have an austere elegance in their decor; Grace, with fewer and better-spaced tables, is the more comfortable of the two.

A principal difference is light. Where Blackbird is all brightness and reflective surfaces, Grace is romantically dim, to the point that the votive candle at your table will come in handy when you peruse the menu. Hard brick surfaces are softened, at least to the eye, by silky sheer curtains. Soft glows emanate from planetlike lamps (whose rings subtly echo the halo in Grace's logo) and a gaggle of frosted globe bulbs that decorate the eastern wall.

Chef and owner is Ted Cizma, last spotted cooking interesting global dishes for The Outpost in Wrigleyville. His cooking at Grace can be considered a more mature, more locally focused version of his Outpost food. But if Cizma's globe-trotting days are over, he still manages to keep things interesting.

First to the table is a basket of bread, where you'll find soft, inviting focaccia with a parmesan crust, perhaps studded with tomato; a mini-baguette flavored with toasted cumin; and a few parmesan-thyme breadsticks. At the table is a bottle of infused oil with fresh herbs. (I've been here four times and the herbs look garden-fresh every time; there are restaurants that don't change the oil in their fryers as often as Cizma changes the oil at his tables.)

Cizma is big on game, and his menu offers lots of it. He pairs assertive game meats with fruity, wine-based sauces -- no innovation there, but taken as a whole, these dishes will persuade you that something special is going on.

For instance, there is his venison loin, stuffed with blackberries and surrounded by a blackberry-thyme demiglace sauce. The blackberries, which Cizma gets from Oregon, may be more wild than the venison, which is so impossibly tender and gentle in flavor one imagines the deer lounging in a recliner in the weeks preceding the final harvest.

The grilled wild boar tenderloin is a bit more assertive, the meat richly gamy. A complex polenta, seasoned with white cheddar cheese, cinnamon and chile, with a compote of nectarines and sundried cranberries alongside, provides the boar with sweet and spicy complements. Rabbit saddle (again, a loin cut) is wrapped around rabbit mousse and prunes and paired with a port wine sauce with accents of prune and juniper berry.

Even the fish has a touch of the wild to it, including wild striped bass with forest mushrooms and a marjoram-red wine sauce, and wild-caught salmon with wood-grilled fennel and a tarragon-scented shellfish broth. Both are delectable. Catfish, however, is farm-raised (even dedicated game lovers will approve), fried in annato oil for a peppery hint and served over rock-shrimp risotto with a spicy beurre rouge.

Appetizers are no less enticing. Starters with star power are earthy lamb sweetbreads, served with a refreshing watercress-peppercress mixture and dabs of blue goat cheese; skillet-seared Maine scallops, perched over a fragrant lobster-anise broth; and risotto with smoked pheasant, aged Edam cheese and toasted hazelnuts.

The crabcakes, studded with sweet corn and plenty of sweet blue crab, get a little kick from the spicy rock shrimp chowder surrounding them. Crisp softshell crabs, placed over an arugula salad with papaya and vidalia onions, evoke memories of summers past.

Most nights, there are only two to three dessert options; there should be more. You never know what might be available, but the poppyseed shortbread filled with lemon curd is a nice option, as is the nut-crusted chocolate tart. Ambrosia cobbler, with an array of fruit, coconut and coconut milk under a cobbler blanket, has an appealing retro whimsy.

The wine list is nicely varied and thorough. By-the-glass pours are generous; I wish a few more bottles were available this way. There are eight half-bottles available, however, and that is suitable compensation.

Service is prompt and personable, though occasionally it takes familiarity a bit too far. One waiter, eager to prove that he remembered me from a previous visit, blurted out: "You were here not too long ago -- though with a different lady last time." True enough, but that is the sort of observation best left unspoken. Imagine if my wife were the jealous type.

Grace, incidentally, is the name of Cizma's younger daughter; his elder daughter, Elaine, has the bad luck to live in a town that already has an Elaine's restaurant. The Cizmas do patronize Elaine Farrell's restaurant, which Ms. Cizma claims as her own.


623 W. Randolph St.
Open: Dinner Tue.-Sun.
Entree prices: $14-$28
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Noise: Conversation-friendly
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking available; no smoking in dining room

Vettel is the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic.

Published on July 7, 1999