Photo by Anne Fishbein
I had the worst time getting a reservation at Grace. Word goes out about these new places, and they fill up for better or for worse. The words about Grace were: Neal Fraser. Where Muse used to be. Ambitious.
Let’s start with Neal Fraser, the executive chef and one of four owners. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Fraser cooked his way around Los Angeles — for Puck, Splichal and Röckenwagner — before opening up the small, moderately priced, stringently hip Boxer, where he pressed salads into molds, explored verticality in food, chafed against the crimp of no liquor license and made a name for himself. He lent that name to the big Santa Monica supper club Rix, then to a short-lived reopening of Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills. Now, after several years of lying low, he’s resurfaced at Grace.
Which is . . . where Muse used to be. Muse being the trenchantly, quietly, eternally in restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, just west of El Coyote. Grace appropriates from Muse its high walls, exposed truss and general upscale glamour, but Michael Berman’s tasteful redesign makes the deep storefront more sophisticated and urbane. Shelves of wine reign over the dining room of long banquettes. Large hanging lanterns of translucent beige tiles cast a mellow reticulated light. Tall glass vases by the door fully submerge lilies and orchids underwater — the floral equivalent of large goldfish. In fact, all the appointments are lovely here, from slender stemware to the flaring orange glass votive holders to the silver-winged honey bee served with tea.
From the name I expected a serene and fluid vibe, but Grace is far more bustling and adult than that, citified and swank. (The male customers tend to have that high-salaried, well-massaged gloss, and the women have good bracelets and handbags.) One night, the guy next to me, wrists and fingers subdued in David Yurman silver rope, orders a $250 bottle of Peter Michael wine for his table — and shares a big glass with my dinner friend. He also orders an additional $2,000 worth of wine to take home. (Since the wines he likes are mostly available only at auction, buying them from the restaurant, our waiter explains, constitutes a kind of convenience.)
But most of us aren’t convenience-shopping at Grace. We’re there to enjoy the new energy and Neal Fraser’s take on American cooking, which seems both more ambitious and expensive than what I recall at either Boxer or Rix.
During the week, a seasonal tasting menu is available, five courses for $55 — a deal. On the weekend, however, dinner is à la carte, and I start with a Dungeness-crab salad, a wantonly delicious compressed disc of crabmeat with freshly shucked green peas, sprouts of Thai basil and a Meyer-lemon vinaigrette. The pop of the peas, the springiness of the crab, the compelling musk of the herb, the way lemon underscores the crab’s sweetness . . . all promise greatness to come. A hauntingly soft, airy terrine of St. Agur Bleu cheese and pear that melts over the tongue like something only gods should eat. Foie gras, served in rhubarb broth, is expertly seared and too good to be so small. Those who ordered other appetizers feel cheated by comparison. A beet salad, stingy with the beets, is indifferently dressed. The goat-cheese salad looks amazing — that big, golden potato-crusted cylinder of fried cheese, glistening greens — but would’ve happily been traded.
None of the entrées transport like the crab salad, either. Rabbit is served on a long skewer, with crisped livers bookending bacon-wrapped bundles of white-meat morsels and clumps of ground dark meat, all faintly smoky, and less compelling than the cheesy polenta beneath it. Chard-wrapped, moist cod on orzo with a lobster sauce is so mild it underwhelms. Wild boar, unnervingly rare, also fails to rally our senses, though we devour its bed of savory cabbage and chewy potato spaetzle. Rack of lamb, bloody wobbly-rare (the chef’s version of medium-rare), is a chore to chew, and the diced zucchini and eggplant bundled in slices of zucchini and eggplant is more visually clever than tasty.
Ingredients are indisputably excellent, and usually respectfully handled, but too many of the ambitious compositions have inscrutable raisons d’être. It makes a certain amount of textural sense to pair beautiful, fresh Santa Barbara prawns with paper-thin slices of Spanish lomo (ham), and even to add crumply, crisp frisée to the mix — but why that big, sodden disc of cooked purple potato? Again, plump day-boat scallops couldn’t have been lovelier, and neither could the white and green asparagus and bits of morel mushrooms with them, but what made the composite greater than the sum of the parts?
A two-cheese course before dessert says it again: two excellent cheeses, a buttermilk blue and a French Camembert, are served too chilled and underripe.
A tasting menu’s napoleon is the most provocative and delicious of Elizabeth Belkind’s desserts — juicy, sweet peaches and candied pecans layered with crème fraîche ice cream and marshmallow-like “nougat” between sheets of shatter-prone pastry. On the other hand, her dark vegan chocolate tart will, I’m afraid, delight mostly dairy-averse vegans. Rhubarb cobbler lacks the fruit’s enlivening sour zing, and the soft, rich chocolate gateau is a fine version of the ubiquitous molten-centered semisoufflé.
Grace is lively and friendly — and full of potential. The kitchen may have yet to fully realize its ambitions, and the wait staff to get its reflexes down pat. And now, any improvement must be managed even as the house is full, the door is jammed, the kitchen ablaze with activity: Call it trial by dinner rush, or Grace under pressure.
Grace, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 934-4400. Dinner Tues.–Thurs. 6–10:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–11 p.m., Sun. 6–10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Entrées $16–$30. AE, MC, V.
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