The art of the meal
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  March 7, 2007

Our friend Jerry gave the best summary of our supper at Gracie’s: “There’s really an art to reading a menu.” I’d add: “And asking enough questions.” Gracie’s menu has such exotic ingredients and unusual preparations that it pays to take nothing for granted.
For example: Jerry and Bill both ordered an appetizer of duck “rillette,” their palates prepared for chunks of duck meat. A rillette, however, is similar to a paté, combining long-cooked shreds of meat with the fat in which they are cooked. The duck rillette, accompanied by a bit of French mache salad, only whispered “duck” to them, but I would argue that it’s a more humane paté than foie gras.
They had both ordered from the “Theater Menu,” served from 5 to 7 PM every evening, with three courses for $35; $50 will get you three wines as well (perhaps not a good idea if you really are headed to the theater). Both guys gravitated toward “Gracie’s rigatoni campanaro” for their second course. This recipe, which originated with owner Ellen Gracyalny’s grandmother, has been carried over from Gracie’s previous incarnation on Federal Hill.
Chef Joe Hafner mentioned that the rigatoni in this dish is one of only two items not made in the restaurant (it comes from Venda Ravioli, and the bread from Olga’s). Bits and hunks of sweet and spicy sausage are mixed into the plum tomato sauce and cubes of ricotta salata are tossed on top. Both guys are great talkers, but their side of the table grew very quiet as they chowed down, and we gals concluded they liked it.
Our orders were much trickier. I wanted to order the “winter tasting of vegetables” but was also drawn to the three-course meal because of the listed appetizer and dessert options. The kitchen kindly let me sub in the veggie tasting for my second course. Thus, my first course was mushroom agnolotti, delicate little pillows of “foraged mushrooms” — this time of year from the Pacific Northwest — in a delectable butternut squash sauce. The agnolotti combined mascarpone and a bit of butter with the mushrooms in the filling. My friend Peipei and I devoured these dumplings with gusto.
One unfortunate thing about our visit was that the restaurant was swamped with theatergoers, and we had a long wait between the first and second courses. It’s hard to know how that impacted our meal, but Peipei’s dinner choice of pan-seared beef tenderloin ($36) was served barely warm. She found it tender and tasty, but disappointingly cool. Also a let-down for this dish was the mere spoonful of four-hour red-onion marmalade that had attracted her to this entrée. The pomme puree, creamed spinach, and Bordelaise sauce fanned out in lovely concentric circles from the hefty cut of tenderloin.
Indeed, the presentations at Gracie’s were stunning, from start to finish. My foursome of veggies was served on a large white platter, with celeriac soup in a small mug, polenta with wild mushrooms in a tiny copper pan, potato gnocchi in a small blue casserole, and a mache and fennel salad on one quadrant of the platter. The gnocchi were light with an earthy truffle oil accent; the salad had a mustard dressing that was just right; the polenta was a bit too salty, but the shiitakes, golden beech and hedgehog mushrooms were delicious. The soup, with a confit of potato and lady apples cubes in a creamy celeriac base, was decidedly the winner.

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