Amazing Grace

Sweet tastes, beautiful building, heavenly reward
By BRIAN DUFF  |  September 2, 2009


Few of us bother to go to church, so Mainers must find ways to reuse our houses of worship, just as we do our riverside mills in this post-industrial age. While several restaurants have put mothballed mill buildings to use, Grace Restaurant's repurposing of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church is the most impressive reclamation project yet.

One of Methodism's contributions to theology was to preach "the resistibility of grace," and the constant danger of "total depravity." Grace Restaurant, by putting an arresting circular bar front and center (and a second bar and lounge in the balcony), uses the appeal of dissolution to melt our resistance. Grace is perhaps less food-centered than bar-centered, and it has a separate bar menu of snacks. The expenses of the refit probably necessitated a focus on the bar's higher profit margins.

The new décor succeeds wonderfully. The modest cathedral is part soaring Catholic stained-glass glory and part white-walled Protestant meetinghouse. The result is a space that is truly striking, but does not overwhelm your experience of the cuisine. Grace's owners did not scrimp on the renovations, and they also found a chef with talent and good ideas. His massive, metallic kitchen — looming at the head of the nave — gives you the sensation of worshiping at the foot of a dynamo.

As theology Methodism resembles others on the surface and reveals its important innovations only in the minutiae. Similarly the menu at Grace is less distinctive for its overall approach — a nouveau-Americanism resembling many of Portland's high-end restaurants — than for its surprising and pleasing details. Those details can be striking, like the zing of mint that cut through a rich lamb ragout, or subtle, like the wonderful harmony of sweet, salt, and sour in the lamb appetizer.

Cooks at Grace work on a hot grill that leaves little room for error. Seared baby octopus got off the heat just short of charred, and might have been cooked a touch past their ideal tenderness. It was a great-looking dish with interesting textures in the navy beans and dried tomatoes that offered chew without chewiness. A thick lamb T-bone, one half of a lamb entrée, was also seared almost black by the scorching grill, but was rare and tender underneath. The ragout next to it was terrific — the richness of the braised meat and density of the fava beans were animated by the sharpness of fresh mint.

Other dishes benefited from the kitchen's restraint with the heat. House-made sausage was soft and juicy rather than overcooked, as so often happens. The moist lamb resonated perfectly with the sweet red pepper tzatziki, salty feta, and sour pickled zucchini. Best of all was a halibut entrée, which sounds soupy on the menu but is heavenly to savor. The moist and tender fish, seared an attractive brown, sits in a rich, bright, and wonderful green onion broth. That broth, resonant with vegetal onion and meaty bacon, enlivens everything it touches — including several juicy scallops and silky-fleshed mussels.

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