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Grace Chicago, Ill. Ted Cizma, executive chef at Grace in Chicago, limped through the warmly lit restaurant and out to his black Dodge Ram. He hadn’t slipped in the kitchen. In fact, Cizma had sprained his ankle at a super cross track in Joliet, Ill., the day before on his second run of the year — the same ankle he broke on the last run of the 2000 season. Super cross — isn’t that roaring engines, diesel and motorcycles? Well, then, how about this: Cizma’s past titles include dockworker, distribution manager in a steel plant and missile specialist in the Marine Corps. So what’s this guy with tattoos, earrings and a ponytail doing on the cover of Food & Wine Magazine? He’s blowing away stereotypes. Cizma was named “One of the 10 Best New Chefs in America for 2000″ by Food & Wine last summer. Cizma’s Grace — named after his younger daughter — is located just west of the Loop at 623 W. Randolph, and serves American cuisine. His philosophy: Use the best possible ingredients served in a straightforward manner, using domestic artistry and when possible, local product. Cizma will be quick to note, “The best isn’t always the most expensive.” He believes in serving food with integrity. “I know the guy who raised the chicken,” said Cizma. “I know how it lived and how it was fed. People can feel good about our product.” There is only so much control a chef can have before the raw ingredients arrive in his or her kitchen, and it is for this reason that Cizma goes out of his way to establish personal relationships with the people who provide his product. The menu at Grace specializes in wild game and while it is seasonal, four signature dishes remain on the menu throughout the year. Servers explain this to patrons and encourage first-timers to sample at least one of Cizma’s specialties. Ambitious diners can begin with Cast Iron Skillet Seared Diver Scallops with spinach, porcini mushroom and lobster bisque or Maryland Blue Crabcakes with spicy corn and rock shrimp chowder. Four conventioneers seated a few tables away from mine were praising our server’s recommendation of both appetizers, but I began with the Frisee Salad — fresh greens tossed with roasted squash, bacon, quince and tossed in Gorgonzola dressing — and a glass of 1998 Marienberg Shiraz. The ingredients complemented one another nicely, and the Gorgonzola was not overpowering. A basket of three warm breads served with fresh oil arrived while I awaited the arrival of my salad, as well as tuna tar tar, compliments of the house. My server gave me ample time to peruse the menu’s winter presentation, which was full of interesting and unusual entrees. A few items that caught my eye included the Grilled Illinois Veal Loin, served with sorrel, apples, tasso ham and foie gras with veal stock reduction; the Whole Roasted Breast of Chicken, with sage and house-made chorizo-cornbread stuffing; and finally, the Slow Cooked Boneless Leg of Wild Boar, accompanied by a ragout of brussel sprouts, celery root and crisp, braised pork belly. But as a Grace virgin I was intent on sampling one of Cizma’s signature entrees — the Wild Striped Bass Filet with fingerling potatoes with parsley, roasted shallots and red wine-wild mushroom broth … or the Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Loin complemented by seasonal vegetables, blackberries and a blackberry-thyme venison demiglace. But alas, I am a meat eater and I ordered the venison medium, only to be gently reminded that the suggested serving temperature was medium-rare. The cellar was temporarily out of the 1997 Schug, Carneros Pinot Noir and I decided on a glass of 1997 Livingston, Moffett Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, which, in fact, nicely complemented the venison. The meal’s presentation was impressive. Six slices of grilled venison loin stuffed with organically grown blackberries from Coos Bay Oregon semicircled a collection of fresh seasonal vegetables. After only a few bites, any diner will understand why this dish has anchored Cizma’s menu. Medium-rare was the correct call, and the string beans and carrots were refreshingly crisp. When my server returned to offer dessert I said, “I don’t think so,” but as soon as he mentioned the evening’s feature, I buckled. The warm Banana Bread with vanilla ice cream, walnuts and caramel sauce was fantastic, although rich enough to make it a three- or four-person endeavor. Five desserts were on the menu, including the free-form huckleberry tart with caramelized pears and honey-thyme ice cream and the warm chocolate pudding cake with bruleed bananas and Turkish coffee ice cream, but be sure to ask about nightly specials. Cizma envisions Grace as “elegant, yet warm and inviting.” The room is wrapped in exposed wood and brick set off by warm lighting. Tables are covered with white linen and brown paper to offset the white. And although the room is elegant, it is almost “lounge-y,” which sets customers at ease. Grace wants its patrons to feel taken care of, yet not intimidated, at all times. Cizma was intimately involved with all facets of the restaurant — from the kitchen to the design of the space itself — in order to reflect his complete attitude toward the dining experience. As the general contractor, he built many of Grace’s fixtures. Like the menu, the wine list features small boutique wines. And again, Cizma has established personal relationship with many of the producers. “A fair amount of our wine is available outside California only at Grace,” Cizma said. He added, “It has been a growing process.” When Grace opened in 1999, there were only 100 wines on the list. Today it features more than 300, including a reserve list. By and large, markups are reasonable, but the list could benefit by offering more choices by the glass — for people like myself who like to try a variety of wines when dining out. The servers at Grace are knowledgeable and know the intricacies of both the menu and wine list, which enables them to offer suggestions according to personal taste, as well as pairing food with wine. It wasn’t a Friday night, but service, timing and presentation were excellent. My server always had his eye on me, but was never hovering. My dining experience at Grace was pleasurable; however, I will leave you with a few brief notes. Seating is tight and if you are a large person or enjoy your space, I suggest dining during the weekdays. Also, as I mentioned, be prepared to order wine by the bottle if you are looking for variety. Expect to spend approximately $200 on dinner for two if you want appetizers, wine, entrees, desserts and coffee. But remember, it’s food with integrity. Grace will celebrate its second birthday in May, but Cizma is already involved in two more restaurant ventures. Currently he’s working on a casual bar and grill a few doors down from Grace that will have a late-night kitchen and serve upscale bar food; also on the horizon is the suburban Elaine, named after his eldest daughter. Elaine will be a derivative of Grace, but with its own unique design. Under construction in Naperville, Ill., Elaine is intended to provide an “oasis of urban sophistication to the far west suburbs,” says Cizma. He was limping again. And from the look on his face as he walked, it was obvious that the ball of his foot really came down hard on the peg as he landed his bike. “I could have probably kept going,” Cizma remarked, “but I guess it’s better to miss half a day than half a season.” Cizma’s passion to ride seems equaled only by his passion to create the finest domestic American cuisine, boldly seasoned and featuring artisan products that not all restaurants and diners have access to. So if you practice in Chicago or are just in town for a meeting or convention, don’t miss the chance to let Cizma’s handy work grace your palate. Restaurant: Grace Location: 623 W. Randolph, Chicago, Ill. Hours: Lunch is served Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Grace is closed on Sunday. Reservations: (312) 928-9200 Scott Domer is a free-lance writer in Chicago.

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