Art Star

The brand new Chambers Kitchen headed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten is good—but is it good enough?

Chambers Kitchen
901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.767.6999
www.chambersminneapolis.com

I was unable to decide what standard to use in judging the brand new restaurant at the brand new Chambers Hotel. Should it be looked at as a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, with all the seamless elegance and worldwide panache that great chef's name connotes? After all, it's his restaurant and no one else's. But then again, it has a very conservative, at times even timid menu, priced just a titch above casual dining, so maybe this thing is merely a hotel restaurant? Just a mid-priced hotel restaurant, meant for business travelers downtown, simply a Marriot for the well-heeled? Or perhaps I should say well-shod, as, on my many visits to Chambers Kitchen, I repeatedly sat near the open staircase that forms the center of the basement room, and so got an eyeful of the wingtips, pumps, flats, cuffed boots, and designer sneakers of the staff and clientele of one of the most eagerly anticipated restaurants of the year. If you're a footwear professional, I say make your reservations today; you will learn a lot about the leather uppers and rubber-tread soles of the now. If you're not a footwear professional, your decision is trickier.

The biggest problem at the Chambers restaurant is the one thing they probably can't fix: the room itself. The main restaurant space and the kitchen are in the basement, and the hard stone and plaster walls, the dim lighting, and, above all, the oft-deafening noise that ricochets off those hard walls, make the whole place feel claustrophobic and glamour-free. Something might have been legitimately out of order with the sound system when I was there—on several of my visits, the music didn't sound like music, but instead like the rumble and growl heard near subway tracks. The colorful Damien Hirst prints on the walls, from Chambers owner Ralph Burnet's zillion-dollar contemporary-art holdings, do little to make the black-and-stone-colored room more cheery: They're from Hirst's Last Supper series, and have something to do with the replacement of faith in our lives with trademarks, the workings of big drug companies, the lack of significance of the individual in the age of generic mass production, and similar downers. When you can't hear your server or your date, and the walls want to talk to you about death, the food really has to work quadruple time to carry the night.

Unfortunately, even two months in, the Chambers restaurant still seems more like a sketch than a finished restaurant, and the food is only ready to carry a little bit of the night. That said, some things I had at Chambers Kitchen were excellent. Appetizers are some of the surest bets. A thinly sliced carpaccio of king oyster mushrooms and avocadoes dressed with fresh lime juice and charred jalapeño oil ($9) was laid out as precisely as the louvers in a Venetian blind, but yielded to a lush and silky luxury on the tongue, the yin and yang of char and citrus giving dimension to the fat wealth of ripe avocadoes and plump mushrooms. A mushroom soup ($7) was gorgeous; for this, a server presents a deep white bowl in which various clouds have landed—one turns out to be a micro-planed snowball of Parmesan cheese, the other mushroom foam. Beneath the clouds rests a wee heap of charred poblano pepper cut into careful squares, and another small pile of fermented black beans. At the table, your server fills up this bowl with a pitcherful of hot, creamy, forest-scented mushroom soup, and then you use your spoon to chase around the various tangy bits. Every alternating bite of cheese and black bean seems to have something profound to say about the similarities between Italian and Asian tastes, and the importance of ferment in rendering everyday things powerfully flavorful.

A sesame seed-crusted crab cake ($13) was a study in the good that comes from simplicity: plain good crabmeat, toasty sesame seeds, and, on the plate, perfectly ripe grapefruit cut into pithless jewels, wound about with thin slices of mint leaf. Unfortunately, those great dishes made themselves known only about half the time, and I more often sat through plates like the one on which rested four chicken samosas ($9) so dark and overfried they were effectively burnt. Or the mixed-green salad with a pureed carrot miso dressing ($8) that tasted almost exactly like the standard one that comes free with every combo order in your neighborhood sushi joint. Or a rare tuna appetizer ($13) that was coated with bits of crushed rice crackers, deep-fried, and, ultimately, completely tasteless.

The entrees at dinner were even less reliable, though some were still very good: A salt-and-pepper walleye ($18) was the lightest version of fish fingers you'll ever see: Little filets were encased in a balloon of batter and fried till they were as pale and weightless as beams of light. They were sprinkled with tiny, exotically stinging crumbs of some melange of salt and pepper, and shared a plate with razor-thin slices of jalapeño and basil. The effect was diminished by some kind of brownish tartar sauce; I guessed by the color that it held tamarind, but the greasy dressing had little flavor and served only to make the dish seem leaden. I also suspected tamarind in the too-salty bowl of brown broth that prevented the duck a l'orange ($22) from being great; here the saline soup diluted the flavor of the good duck, and, criminally, made its crisp skin utterly soggy in the space of seconds.

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