Dining with Grace: My First Encounter with Michelin Stars
The façade is understated. Covered window. A mirror with the word Grace reflecting the office buildings across the street, not even a block away from the highway.
It’s quiet, subdued, music is playing in the background, but it’s unobtrusive. Servers are dressed in black. Dining room muted; lights, colours.
As it’s early, only one table is occupied. I’m shown to a two-top at the far end of the room, by the wall, and with the perfect view of the kitchen, enclosed, but visible through a large window.
Water is poured from an elegant white jug into a large wine glass. Sparkling is my preference. A small domed lamp is the only adornment on the taupe-coloured tablecloth.
Decision time. Flora or Fauna? No physical menu is shown. We’re in the chef’s hands. It’s a dilemma, I opt for Fauna and secretly hope to return for glorious veg.
I’m opposed to phones at the table but there was no way I was going to miss capturing this event. Took the case off and put it slightly to the side. Time to take notes with a pen, in a book.
1. Champagne, cauliflower, asparagus, artichokes
Of course, we start with Champagne.
The dish is presented by the server, I do my best to remember her words and write them down before she tells me I’ll be given the menu at the end of the meal.
Three small white cups are placed before me. They look handmade, gently blown ceramic.
First one, on the left, contains what looks like white foam with startling green dots. Its geoduck and cauliflower. I take the small spoon and a deep breath, dip the spoon into the foam and taste. It’s the essence of cauliflower. Next dip brings the chewy geoduck and something crispy, like fried onion.
Cup two holds crispy puffed rice, daikon radish, okra, over which a warm asparagus broth is poured. The broth is dark, smoky, and utterly delicious. I take my time savouring each spoonful.
In the third cup are artichokes. Creamed and chopped into fine mignonettes. Were they slightly pickled? The cream is cold and refreshing. A crispy string of artichoke is on top and I’m detecting a theme. Textures.
2. Rabbit, chanterelle, smoked paprika, green garlic
Champagne is refilled and the sommelier informs me this is the only two-pour. I have no problem with that, as the glass is dry and the bubbles light.
Course two arrives. It’s a glass jar with a gold foil lid and comes with instructions. Remove the lid and smell the apple smoke, making sure to lick the paprika yoghurt. I do as I’m told and uncover a small variety of flavours and textures so delicious I forget to drink the Champagne as I dip my spoon into the goodness and do my best to detect the other ingredients.
Dishes are gently whisked away, the half-empty Champagne glass softly moved aside to make room for another.
3. Alaskan king crab, sudachi, cucumber, lemon mint
The sommelier brings a chilled Riesling with a slight effervescence. Dish three is placed before me and it’s stunning. A triangular glass with a layer of sugar brittle covered with colours. I sit and simply look at it for a moment before I take the spoon and gently crack the surface. The first bite is refreshing. The cucumber seems almost sour with the lemon mint, the roe bursting with saltiness yet no flavour overpowers the other.
But what is that spice hiding in the background?
4. Tomato, basil, burrata, burnet
As I jot a few notes in my Moleskine, attempting to capture these tastes with words, the server comes by and says “would you like to see the kitchen?” Earlier she had asked about what brought me here, what my interests were, and now she says the sous chef will be plating a special dish from the Flora menu, as she knew I had a hard time deciding. I’m giddy like a school girl and feel ridiculously special.
The kitchen is bright, with gleaming white counters, quiet, clean, and uncluttered. Chef has a large black plate and the mise en place within reach. A time-sensitive dish, I’m told by the server, as she steps back and lets me zoom in on the action. What looks like ice cream is spread in the middle of the plate, a delicate looking bowl placed on top. But it’s not a bowl; it’s burrata, the delectable Italian fresh cheese, shaped into a bowl and frozen? I learn how to make tomato water as the chef calmly explains the process, what he is doing, which ingredient is being placed on the dish. Summer’s last heirloom tomatoes, skins removed, lightly salted, tomato leather, and a rougher than normal basil, hailing from Africa. Tweezers are a must; this is precision work. Chef patiently answers my questions, I’m lost in the moment. The kitchen is peaceful, the staff working efficiently around us.
The server takes our picture before guiding me back into the dining room where she pours a refill of the Riesling (another two-pour!) as another server places the just-plated dish in front of me. I grin to myself in satisfaction as I taste the tomatoes in all its textures, shapes, flavours, and temperatures.
5. Big eye tuna, caviar, coconut, purslane
I can hardly pronounce the next wine, despite five years of German, and am intrigued to taste a grape I’ve never heard of. Then a server brings by bread. And butter. Two kinds. One looks like it was freshly churned and topped with chunks of sea salt. The other has a remarkable fresh green colour and is swirled in waves with small pieces of herbs. A warm fennel ciabatta is the perfect vehicle to taste both. How does all that herby flavour get in the butter? This I must try to recreate at home.
The fifth course arrives on a stunning white square plate with waves. “Our most photographed dish” and I can see why. The tuna is paper thin, the caviar like the sea, and what may be tapioca a fun play. Is the cashew a tad overwhelming? No, they enhance and bring out the saltiness in…is that coconut?
The food is so amazingly interesting I almost forget about the wine. Almost. The Champagne is chosen from a small four-generation vineyard, the other glasses carefully selected to complement and enhance the dishes, some familiar, some new.
6. Lamb, red pepper, squash, mâche
This is a different kind of slow food. Each bite, each spoonful is to be savoured and explored.
Dish six is merguez sausages with a gastrique. And the most delicate baby zucchinis, barely sautéed, perfectly al dente, they taste as if they were picked from the garden bare moments ago.
7. Black truffle, prosciutto, porcini, chive blossom
Truffles! The somm’s decanters become more complex as the meal progresses.
Even the bread is paired exquisitely, this time an epi-shaped pretzel roll. That green butter keeps on giving.
The potato crisps are a bit overpowering and I find the seventh dish less complex than its predecessors. Amazing, yes, yet almost missing the surprise of spice. The wine complements it though and I should have eaten the bread alongside: that’s where the spice was.
8. Miyazaki beef, watermelon, black sesame, shiso
There’s comfort and enjoyment in home cooking and good food. Memories around tables. This kind of fine dining takes food and ingredients to a different realm, more like memories of the future, of what’s possible when you have learned and practiced how.
Next bread is a mini churro with dipping sauce. It’s sweet and salty, but a bit too rich.
This is the last savoury course, on a piping hot plate. I cut into what looks like a charred heirloom tomato, but no; it’s watermelon. I – again – forget about the bread and – more surprisingly – the wine (a Châteauneuf-du-Pape!) and wonder how the chef and his team conceive these beauties. Does he wake up in the middle of the night in a Eureka moment or is he inspired by that tiny little growing zucchini in his garden (does he have one?)? Are these all his personal creations or with input from others? Is it perfect the first time or do they spend weeks refining them?
The dishes are so beautiful; works of art on a plate. I taste, I mix, I devour, and what’s left is a different painting.
9. Marionberry or toka plum
I’m getting satiated. While portions are small (but not puny), the slowness and real timely appreciation has me approaching fullness, satisfaction, yet there’s still dessert!
The palate cleanser, a plum bubble gum sorbet in a tiny waffle cone is served held on a long board by one of the many quietly friendly servers who inconspicuously have been keeping my water glass filled throughout the evening.
Happened to be a selfie moment as I had sips of Champagne left (there’s a first for everything) and it went deliciously.
I enjoy watching the kitchen staff through the large window as they practice correct handwashing in the corner. They’re efficient, clean, quiet.
The dining room has round tables set for four, not too close. The other diners are mostly couples while a few others dine in solitude – like me – at tables by the wall.
10. Blueberry, raspberry, croissant, bubblegum hyssop
The tenth dish is so pretty, I hate to mess it up. Until I taste the shaved, fried croissant with a hint of salt. Crispy and delectable and addictive.
I normally find a Lambrusco type wine too sweet, but this is a decent pairing for the late raspberries and underlines their fruitiness and slight tanginess. I think if you put basil in that glass of bubbly it would be reminiscent of this dish, especially with a few croissant crumbs on top.
Perhaps a very dry Champagne would have been even better for these flavours, but that may be my personal preference, or me learning from this experience.
And that’s what this was. An experience. Never to be forgotten. Always to be learned from. And hopefully to be repeated.
11. Chocolate, pistachio, lemon, mint
Well, it had to be chocolate (or cheese) and another delicate spoon for the last official dish. Again, the contrast between textures and temperatures; soft, chewy, crispy.
The tube is ice cold and as it melts in my mouth it unleashes mint and, is it pepper? It seems like there’s so much going on, but it’s really an orchestra of flavours playing a new piece. Apple cake and chocolate? Yes, please.
12. Tea, rosemary
The server brings a last taste. A bubble on a pedestal, advising me to touch it very carefully. It still bursts and I pick the pieces up with my fingers and lick droplets of tea from the shell. A second one appears and this time I master it; cool to the touch, the bauble bursts where it should and fills my mouth with tea and rosemary, like a misty shower in the woods.
I sip a small glass of Cardamaro, reluctant to let this experience end while watching my fellow diners. One couple managed not to break the bauble on the first try and the delight on his face sharing with her was visible from across the room. Another couple faced the decision of Flora and Fauna and solved it by having one of each menu, with the wine flights and extra sets of cutlery.
13. Kitchen, meal, moment, stars
My server brings me back to the kitchen for another look and a photo by the spice wall (should have zoomed in on that selection) and I take a last picture of the spotless kitchen, its quietly hard-working staff in their whites and the black-clad servers standing guard for the next order up.
I’m shown back to reality, given an envelope with the signed menu, embossed with the name Grace.
I was early. Eager. And had the dining room almost to myself for the first few courses. How long was that? I don’t know. Time slowed down and did not matter. It was all about the food. The understated elegance of the dining room, the staff, even the kitchen, were simply background to help the ingredients shine.
I need a moment. I need a moment to absorb. A moment to re-savour. To remember. This. Dining with grace. Three stars. And me.