This is what I have to say about Distilled, which occupies the space vacated by Jonathan's in the Gratz Park Inn: It's a really good restaurant.
I always liked Jonathan's but often felt that the food was a little overdone, as was the decor. Distilled, under the same ownership as the understated Heirloom in Midway, has a decidedly lighter look; less clublike and more trendy, but certainly not out there.
In two meals, dinner and lunch, I was impressed by the way the chefs use very high-quality ingredients for imaginative dishes that push boundaries just far enough.
An example was the tempura fish taco ($15) on the lunch menu. Here buttery halibut chunks are fried in a light tempura batter and served on a slaw with cilantro and avocado, dressed with a spicy mayonnaise and lime juice. The taco itself was a delight, crisp and light. The combination is a medley of flavors and textures that was absolutely delicious.
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At lunch, my companion and I also tried the tesa BLT ($10). Tesa, which I didn't know, is a special kind of Italian bacon, akin to pancetta. Cut thick, the tesa was combined with a fried green tomato and pimento cheese which acted as both an element and a sauce. Light it was not, but good it was. The tart tomato in the middle — a generous slice — made the whole thing work, just the right sharp note in the middle of all that richness.
Tesa appeared, in a minor role, in one of the excellent dishes we sampled at dinner, the diver scallops. Offered as an appetizer ($13) on the regular menu, that night, a larger portion appeared as an entree for $25. Served on beet grits, the sauteed scallops were dressed with a tesa-pecan crumble. Again, this combination worked. The soft, rich and subtle scallops were set off beautifully by the crunchy pops of flavor in the topping. We also tried the bacon-wrapped duck breast. The name sounds a bit too much like something you might pick off the tray at a dreary reception, but the reality at Distilled was something else again. Tender duck breast stuffed with a raspberry and brioche mixture was wrapped in bacon and cooked perfectly. Nothing overdone, nothing tough. Each bite was a joy.
To start at that meal, we tried a mache and beet salad ($12), which was good but not quite at the level of the other offerings. In that case, I felt that the peppered pecan crumbles on the top were maybe just a little too much, threatening to overwhelm the less assertive vegetables in the dish.
Sad to say, at neither meal did I have the energy or capacity to try a dessert. While the portions at Distilled are not huge at all, the dishes are rich and satisfying. Distilled also has a brunch menu that is quite distinct from the others, but I haven't tried that meal yet.
Distilled is not a place to go to please everyone. The menu is small and the dishes are complex, so plain-foods folks might be a little overwhelmed. But people who like really good ingredients cooked thoughtfully and imaginatively should try it.
I enjoyed both meals, but thought lunch at the price and quality was quite a find. Curiously, the restaurant was almost empty for that meal, making it a great place to sit and have a long visit. At least until it gains the following it deserves.