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I’ve now eaten at two restaurants in what used to be former churches, and the difference could hardly be more extreme. My first such meal was in the fall of 2004, when I was visiting some friends in Ireland. They had heard about a chapel in Glengarry that had been converted into a café, and we thought it might be fun to check out. It was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. The oddity began on our arrival, when we saw signs outside saying, “Do Not Touch The Flowers”. They were quite serious about it, too; one woman got yelled at for even leaning down to smell the flowers. Inside were similar signs warning “No Photography”, “ Do Not Touch”, “Keep Your Children Seated”. The décor also left something to be desired. The inside was dim and slightly claustrophobic, decorated with numerous animal heads on the wall and, on an almost altar-like area in the back, a carving of a man’s bloody head on a platter. The only part I liked was that they had converted the pews into seats for the tables. All of that might have been fine if the food was good, but sadly, such was not the case. We ordered expensive carrot soup, and my friends were actually indignant over it, convinced that it was really just orange-colored potato soup. Our meagerly-filled sandwiches were served on the Irish equivalent of Wonder Bread. We decided not to tempt dessert, instead wanting to leave as quickly as possible. It was in no way a religious experience. In sharp contrast to that was taking my family out to dinner last night. It was my Christmas gift to them, an annual tradition of treating them to a meal at an up-scale restaurant. The choices in Portland are almost overwhelmingly abundant these days, but after some thought I decided on Grace.

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The building alone is worth a visit. The restaurant is housed in a space that used to be a Methodist church, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. High vaulted ceilings, stained glass, open view of the kitchen from our seat on the balcony, a circular bar, and the host or hostess overseeing everything from the pulpit. It was all very elegant and, dare I say, graceful.

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The food, too, was fantastic. I’m not sure exactly what type of bread we had to start, but it was something like a nut bread, delicious on its own or with the herbed butter. Most of us saved room for the main course and dessert, but those who had appetizers (fettuccine with a seafood medley and pork crostini) were quite pleased with their choices.

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I spent some time agonizing over my entrée, but I eventually opted for something a bit different. I got: venison loin, cooked to perfection over a savory-sweet huckleberry sauce; venison sausage over shredded beets; delicately crunchy and earthy mushroom spaetzle; and a puree of yuzu-parsley root. My side of pickled vegetables – including beets, fennel, and pearl onions – was a perfectly tart, crunchy complement. Others had steak, scallops, and gnocchi with goat cheese, with sides of fried green beans, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and roasted fingerling potatoes. Everything was delicious.

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And dessert! Many of us went with the flourless chocolate cake, a lovely dark circle topped with milk chocolate mousse and a peanut butter powder, accompanied by a scoop of peanut butter crunch ice cream with a bit of peanut brittle. It was truly heavenly. Others enjoyed the goat cheese cheesecake, cookie and bon-bon plate, and apple pie. Leaving, we were all satisfied but not uncomfortably stuffed. We couldn’t find any fault with our meal – a perfect evening. Of course I ate more than I needed, and this morning I’m sneezing a little from the milk in the mousse and ice cream, but I’m okay with that. Because what I was thinking about last night, as we lingered over our food for a couple of hours, was that meals like this truly are a type of grace. Many of us who have struggled with weight can forget the simple enjoyment of an exceptional meal, getting caught up in trying to count calories, or determine carbs, proteins, fats, vegetable exchanges, etc. Had I been worried about any of that, I would not have been able to enjoy myself. And that would be a shame. I also appreciated that the restaurant actually wanted the experience to be joyful. When I think of the café in Glengarry, it almost seemed like the owners were trying to cultivate an idea of deprivation and solemnity. It was not something we were meant to take pleasure in. And I have a problem with that. No matter how humble or elegant, food should be enjoyed. It is more than just some combination of nutrients, and while we do need it to live, being able to eat more than subsistence foods is a blessing, as is being able to share such a meal with loved ones. I admit that I don’t always remember that, either, but I hope to more often, recalling, as I eat my fill of whatever type of food, that I am graced.

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