Friday was my birthday. Some people might say it was a big birthday, since it was one of those that ended in a five or zero. Forty, to be exact. I’m not sure I can describe what forty feels like, because I think it’s a bit different for everyone. At forty, I am married, have a three-year old son, a seven-year old dog, own a condo, run for exercise and work full-time. At forty, my mom had a 14-year-old and 12-year-old. At forty, I have friends who are single, married, divorced. With kids and without. Planning for more and done long ago. Renting and owning their homes. Working full-time, looking for a job and enjoying the stay-at-home status. Laden with debt and planning for early retirement. Running ultra marathons and fighting cancer. Forty. It’s really just a number where we get to fill in the details.
But, Sweets made sure I ushered in forty with a bang. He took me to Grace, a restaurant that was ranked #1 newcomer by Chicago Magazine and in the Top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appetite Magazine, and earned two Michelin stars last month. The chef? Curtis Duffy worked under the legendary (and recently deceased) Charlie Trotter and helped Grant Achatz open his well-received Alinea (both in Chicago). He’s received honors by the James Beard Foundation. All of this is to say that Grace is no laughing matter – it’s serious food.
The menu is fixed – diners choose a flora option (heavier on the vegetation) or fauna option (heavier on the meats and fishes). Diners choose whether they want the accompanying wine flight. And can opt to add on the truffle serving (for a mere $100 extra per person, ouch!). While waitstaff waste no time whisking away empty plates (it’s a multi-course meal – on our visit, the menu was 9 courses), the meal still takes many unrushed hours to finish. At the end of the meal, diners are provided the opportunity to tour the kitchen.
This kind of meal is very much out of Sweets and my comfort zone. We NEVER spend that much money on any meal, not even close; so, we really have no benchmark on which to compare this meal. When you’re at restaurants like this, there is a certain air of decorum (for lack of a better word). Waitstaff are professional; some might say stuffy. No request is too small or too outrageous. And, when there are at least 4-6 people servicing your table throughout the meal, you are constantly under the watchful eye of someone, if not many people during your meal.
Sweets and I are far too laid back to fit into that space. But, we decided to embrace it, while still being ourselves. We joked with our waiter and sommelier and even cracked a few smiles from them. We asked questions about the food and experience that most certainly exposed how much we have yet to learn about food and the restaurant scene in Chicago. We kicked back and enjoyed our three plus hours in the space, knowing a night like that only comes around once. At the end of the evening, I felt full – of life, of food, of wine, of love. It was an amazing evening.
Though, in hindsight, it brings up an interesting debate, one that my father raised to me many years ago. At what point is a meal not worth the money? Even the best food in the world has a ceiling to its worth. My father once argued that after a certain price point, the food is no longer worth the money. I certainly agree, though I don’t know the exact price point that would best answer that question. Sweets and I did agree that a meal like this has to be the highlight of the evening. You have to be willing to let it drive the flow of the meal. You have to stop to listen to descriptions of the courses. You have to take in the beauty, the smells and, of course, the taste. To do so in a group does a disservice to your meal. Either, you’re too engaged with your friends to pay close enough attention to the details of the meal. Or, your social evening is broken up countless times when each course is served. I was thankful it was just Sweets and me experiencing this meal together.
So, to sum it up, I’m forty. I celebrated with the love of my life, experiencing one of the great meals of my life. I’m a lucky lady to be hitting my mid-life in such style.
How have you celebrated the big milestones in your life? Would you rather celebrate a big birthday with lots of friends or in the company of one or a couple loved ones? How much is too much to spend on a meal? What’s the most memorable meal you’ve had?