In December, Chicago chef Curtis Duffy—formerly of modernist cuisine mecca Alinea and Avenues—opened a new restaurant named Grace. It’s quickly become one of the places to eat in the city, at which diners choose between a "fauna" (meat/seafood) or "flora" (vegetable) tasting menu that highlight herbs, heirloom produce, and some of the most beautiful platings you’ve ever seen.
If Grace has a signature dish, it’s their take on sashimi. A delicate cylinder of ginger ice surrounds a raw fish of the day, topped with touches like pomelo, golden trout roe, and coconut. With the tap of a spoon, the cylinder cracks, distributing infinitesimally thin shards of pure cold amongst the fresh ocean flavors. But while his restaurant just opened two months ago, it’s a dish that Duffy has wanted to create for the last seven years.
"I didn’t have anybody to build it," Duffy tells Co.Design, referencing that delicate cylinder of ice. "I had the idea. I just didn’t have the means to get it constructed and the financials to make it happen."
What Duffy needed wasn’t necessarily complicated—it was just a silicone ice tray with a PVC pipe sticking out. But functionally, it required incredible precision to get just right. If the ice was too thick, it’d water down the dish (which was meant to be just four to five bites). If it were too thin, the ice would melt before the kitchen could plate the dish. So Duffy simply kept the vision in the back of his mind for a long time. Eventually, he met Michael Joy, a local silicone mold specialist. Six months before Grace opened, they struck up a serious conversation about the feasibility of the project. Joy said it was totally possible, and he went to work.
"A couple of weeks later, we had a prototype," Duffy recounts. "I started heavily documenting what was in the sleeve and how long it took to freeze. Each week, I’d send my notes to him, he’d tweak the silicone, and I’d come back with a new problem."
And there was another, pretty big problem.
"At one point, we actually used a condom over PVC pipe to ply the silicone mold out," Curtis laughs. "I said that I can’t, as part of my daily mise en place, open 50 condoms."
After about a dozen iterations, the team had built what just may be the world’s most gastronomical ice cube tray. And since its debut on a plate, no review of Grace is complete without a loving namedrop of the course.
"For every dish that we make, I always say there needs to be a sense of familiarness from a diner’s standpoint," Duffy explains. "It can’t be so bizarre they’re having a hard time understanding the dish. But then there have to be elements that are unfamiliar, bringing excitement to the dish: Texture, the flavor, or a new ingredient itself."
In the case of Grace’s ice mold, it’s the perfect marriage of these ideas. Everyone has (dangerously) chewed on ice. And most everyone has enjoyed fresh sashimi. But to have the ginger flavors slice through the ocean flavors in a tide of chill, that’s something new.
"You can go down the street and get the same flavor components in a dish plated in a bowl, and it’s not that exciting," Duffy admits. "Here it’s a different experience. It’s interactive. It’s sensational."