Some people insist a diet of fatty foods not only rounds out the waistline, it also invites a series of almost certain future ills. If they're right, then Blaine Staniford must want to kill us—although with his arsenal of bacon, butter, cream and slabs of richly marbled red meat, ours will be a long, slow and very happy death.
Oh, his intent is much more benign: recreating the hearty dishes found in classy, mid-century supper clubs, the kind of meat, seafood, potatoes and onions common in the era before global fusion. And he approaches the project with caloric zeal.
"Just slight twists on American food," the Grace chef says of his menu. "We keep it simple—there's not a lot of flair, and it's definitely protein-driven."
Crab cakes $16 Fried oysters $12 Berkshire pork porchetta $33 Meyer Ranch steak (6 oz.) with fried egg $39 Heirloom squash and pears $8 Bacon-wrapped cipollini $9
Yeah—good, fatty protein. The assault on your senses starts with a row of fried oysters, crispy on the outside and gushing the mineral earthiness of good, fresh shellfish. Hardly sounds imposing, right? On their own, these may stand as the most remarkable fried oysters served in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But they are also draped in a variation of the classic beurre blanc, adding shrimp shells, Worcestershire and a wealth of black pepper to the usual vinegar-shallot reduction before finishing with butter. This allows sharp, prickly, tangy and sweet elements to creep in—a background not unlike five-spice powder, only much more intriguing.
Simple? Lacking flair? "That's my French training," Staniford says with a laugh.
He's right, though. Many of the restaurant's standout menu items are less graceful, though no less filling. Take the crab cake appetizer, for instance. Instead of a pan-seared patty, you're presented with a mound of loose lump crab meat doused in a mustard sauce so heavy and forceful (and good, mind you) it's capable of beating the main ingredient into submission. It's the antithesis of the beurre blanc. In fact, Staniford has to fix a few wedges of fresh ruby grapefruit to the dish in order to combat the dressing. A side dish of cipollini (labeled "onions" on the menu) wrapped in bacon and drizzled with a blue cheese vinaigrette reads like the work of a madman. Yet the bulb's bittersweet zing matches well to the concentrated flavor of applewood-smoked meat...until melting streaks of fat begin to weigh in like an anchor.
You can move on from there to steak—prime, dry-aged or grass-fed Meyer Ranch cuts—offered with several sauce and topping options. Normally I don't recommend covering red meat, especially when it's presented as a plush cushion still cool in the center and falling across the palate like a cashmere sweater. The flavor is just not resilient enough to resist anything more than the most delicate additions. But one of the choices was fried egg, a throwback to the days of black and white film, the time when "egg in your beer" was considered a good thing.
"Egg is my favorite thing," the chef explains. "It's all over the menu." True enough—there's even a poached egg salad. He buys organic product from Dominion Farms in Denison, the same outfit that provides so many Dallas-area restaurants with free-range chicken. Besides, he asks, "What's better than steak and eggs?"
Really, it's hard to imagine anything better. Though the combination doesn't sell nearly as well as steak with béarnaise, horseradish or even the coupling of beef and crab known as Oscar, it will capture your attention long enough for an almost apologetic "our parents and grandparents knew what they were doing" to escape your lips before you lapse back into the mesmerizing and glorious ooze of over-easy egg enriching beautifully rare red meat.
Grace is perhaps what you imagine Fort Worth to be, only more expensive. Protein comes with more protein on top. Salads include plenty of meat, and even the fried oyster plate is gussied with cute little slices of hard sausage. That's right, thin cuts of salami seared until the flesh crisps up and the edges curl. Put all this on a bed of spinach sautéed in butter and enough garlic to shred one's esophagus, and you'll understand it's not the place for light eaters—or people of average girth primed for a multi-course meal, for that matter. No, Staniford's laborious old-school dishes are more suited to those plying jackhammers all day long than those growing soft in some anonymous cubicle.
Yet this is the same chef who crafted an Asian-inspired menu for Fuse in downtown Dallas. What happened to the genteel recipes? What happened to the emphasis on the modern, hip and delicate?
"I was getting tired of looking at sushi all the time," the chef jokes—quickly admitting the four and a half years spent working in Dallas (he still commutes to Fort Worth) haunts strengthened his confidence and resolve.
You'd think he'd need all the resolve possible: It's a large space, and they've been through several ups and downs while working through normal restaurant growing pains and a wobbling economy. Some items come out brimming with sodium (I drained a pitcher of water after returning home one night). The Berkshire pork porchetta falters for another reason: flabby, dull meat blends into an equally mundane black-eyed pea ragout and its hapless chimichurri seasoning. As much as I love anything related to bacon and pork belly, the dish falls flat. On the other hand, a side of squash and pears, basted and baked, couldn't be more right.
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Cipollini wallowing in bacon fat and blue cheese, tender pork belly streaked with fat, well-marbled steak topped by a rich organic egg...yes, sometimes it seems like this chef wants you to waddle home after a visit to Grace, sack out and wait for that telltale flutter in your chest. Here and there he buries a dish in sodium or doldrums. Yet most of Staniford's efforts fall into the comfort food category, familiar recipes we all yearn for at one point or another, despite the cautions of well-meaning nutritionists.
What he's really trying to do is make us feel welcome and warm. And on recent weekend evenings, Grace has been packed with boisterous groups of two, four and sometimes more. Through the bustle of the dinner rush, servers keep their poise. "I'm going to get that table prepared," our waiter said after bringing drinks one night, "then I'll be right back to take your order." Reassuring guests—that's a good thing. When my dinner guest on a Saturday visit requested white wine for her plate of red meat, the guy didn't even blink. "I think this would be good," he said, pointing to a menu listing beyond my line of sight, "but I'll ask the sommelier."
Simply put, they make you feel at ease. And chef Staniford's cooking makes you feel satisfied.
Grace 777 Main St., Fort Worth, 817-877-3388. Open 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bar menu until 11 p.m. $$$$