That Grace is a restaurant in a church underscores a reality for some people: Food is religion. It’s also a reminder that we all have deep-rooted and often irrational opinions about both topics. Grace first opened in 2009 to a collective gasp. A restaurant/bar in a church? Can you do that? Of course you can. My question is whether the menu by new executive chef Adam Flood is upstaged by the setting, or if the two can create a conversation with each other about a revelatory experience.
As things go, my guest opts for a second Pabst Blue Ribbon and whiskey at the Downtown Lounge, so I wander along Congress Street past summer-evening revelers and panhandlers and drunks, headed for Grace alone. Entering Chestnut Street, there’s comfort in the brownstone façade of the 1850s early Gothic revival church designed by Charles Alexander. I’ve never been a churchgoer, but I love to stop and visit churches when they’re not in service, to sit amidst the hush of empty pews. Now I can also get a meal.
After passing through Grace’s striking red doors, the cavernous interior never ceases to astonish. Well-orchestrated lighting highlights the lancet stained-glass windows and exposed beams of the vaulted nave while at the same time leaving mystery in the alcoves and pointed-arch doors and windows around the balcony.
The most prominent feature is the large lighted triquetra over the bar that mimics the church’s signature three-petal trefoil windows and makes the space feel both modern and ancient at once. (Originally a symbol of the triple-goddess of maiden, mother and crone, the triquetra was incorporated by Christianity as the holy trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.)
If the bar’s centrality adds a sacrilegious edge, when you sidle up to it, the names of the drinks make gentle mockery of any discomfort you may feel. My favorite is the Holier Than Thou with St Germain, grapefruit juice and sparking wine. I head for a table near the kitchen, which is appropriately situated on the church’s raised bema, the organ pipes and arching windows of the apse beyond.
The menu may be bound in leather, but there are no white tablecloths here, rather a subtly elegant setting of gold-laced place mats and a single glass votive illuminating the wine glasses. The balcony offers a private experience, while the downstairs tables have a more public feeling, as if you’re being watched over by those above, or perhaps by God. There’s the urge to hide behind my iPhone or become one of those solitary diners with a book; instead I happily occupy myself with dinner itself.
Foie gras ($19) arrives with peach marmalade, roasted cashew butter, toasted brioche and potato chips, which are perhaps the chef’s way of not taking too seriously the controversial and high-end fattened goose liver. I also find the chips a good vehicle for the melt-on-the-tongue torchon from the Hudson Valley and a gluten-free option to the toasted brioche.
Next comes the green salad ($7) with small red beet cubes and a sherry vinaigrette over a simple presentation of mixed greens, and again a mischievous touch in the sprinkling of house-made goat cheese and sesame crackers that balance out the sweet of the dressing. The waitress tells me the greens are local and organic, so I’m only wishing they had that brightness of flavor when fresh from the garden.
This is forgotten when she returns with a pan-seared Massachusetts halibut ($36) atop a bed of red quinoa mixed with mint yogurt and spring-green dots of peas and fava beans – all topped by fresh pea shoots and sweet Champagne grapes and decorated with a smear of herb chermoula. The earthy and filling base grounds the light and lively flavors of the fish and pea shoots.
While the ice cream Sunday special with chocolate-covered potato chips is tempting, I ask to try the chips with a cheese plate. The waitress, who shares my interest in minimizing gluten, suggests apple slices instead of bread with a creamy Cremont Brie.
Sitting alone near the kitchen means I end up chatting in passing with chef Flood, who took over from Pete Sueltenfuss in June after serving as sous chef since 2012. He’s pleased by my interest in the raisins on the vine that come as a garnish for the cheese plate – it turns out he went to great lengths to order them from Japan. “I like to add something to every dish that isn’t noted on the menu, as a surprise for the diner,” he says.
It is indeed these little surprises and light touches that make Grace an enjoyable place to eat – stunningly renovated church or not. The playfulness of the menu winks at the seriousness of the setting, yet this is serious food that never feels excessively on-theme. Grace is not just a tourist attraction, it’s a place to both say grace and taste it.
On my way out, I bump into owner Anne Verrill, who spent two years and $2 million dollars renovating the Chestnut Street Church. She tells me she’s pleased that members of the former congregation often come back to dine, including one couple who got married in the new space just as their parents did in the old.
Verrill has joined a small but growing number of restaurateurs who’ve restored churches into restaurants, including Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh and Church Bar and Restaurant in Dublin, Ireland. It’s fitting that these crumbling landmarks have been born again as temples to sustenance. After all, the Lord’s Prayer does state, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Chances are, there are those who disagree with this trend. That’s why the prayer also suggests, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
That is, in fact, the definition of grace.
Melissa Coleman is interim restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Coleman writes for national and local publications and can be found at melissacoleman.com. Her memoir, “This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak,” is about coming of age during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.