Octopus and scallops at Ria, Chicago (Brad A. Johnson)
Chef Danny Grant deserves a James Beard nomination this year, and if he doesn’t get it, dammit, I’m gonna cry foul. His cooking at Ria in Chicago (11 East Walton, 312-880-4400) is as polished and refined as I’ve ever come across from a 29-year-old chef. Hell, maybe even from anyone twice his age.
Ria at The Elysian hotel, Chicago (Brad A. Johnson)
My meal here earlier this month was the absolute highlight of a weeklong eating binge at Chicago’s best restaurants. My gracefully paced, two-and-a-half hour meal began with a perfect, straight-from-the-oven gougère and never looked back. I ate sea urchin with green apple and orange zest. I savored gumball-sized dumplings filled with foie gras and black truffle in a consommé of ice wine. I enjoyed scallops together with octopus beneath a cloud foam made from fish stock. I drank a special cuvee of Champagne Pommery that’s available nowhere else in America. I marveled at the artistry of shaved foie gras torchon, stacked with pumpernickel toasts and quince butter. I was at a loss for words eating Dover sole stuffed with mushroom duxelles. By this point I was already full but I kept going because I didn’t want to stop. I willingly stuffed myself with crispy-skinned duck and seared foie gras in a citrus jus. It didn’t take much muster for me to gulp down the Wagyu beef and lobster that followed. Or, for that matter, the two desserts and plate of candies that brought the meal to a close. And lest you get the wrong idea, let me be clear: I was not necessarily impressed by the chef’s over-reliance on foie gras, sea urchin, truffles, Wagyu beef and lobster. Obviously, those things are expensive and impressive in their own right. But there was much more to it than that. It’s the grace and maturity in Grant’s highly ambitious cooking that makes him a real star. America’s best French restaurants have been closing left and right in recent years. It’s nice to see someone going against that trend—and succeeding so brilliantly.