Art Star

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

Steamed lobster with butter-fried garlic ($32) was overcooked and stringy, though the spinach, lemongrass, and fried garlic that filled out the plate were delicious. Short ribs ($18) were served as a large boneless cut, and as such were a terrifically tender rectangle of meat thickly frosted with a sort of sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce. While the dish was good in a barbecue-shack kind of way, it really wanted to be served on a bun in front of the television, not murmured over beneath dim lights. Still, the crisp-shelled, deep-fried log of cheddar polenta that came with it was absolutely craveable; it was as creamy as dessert, as cheese-rich as Wisconsin, and really one of the only times I looked at a plate at Chambers and thought: Well, boy howdy, there are some people back there who know how to do things the rest of us can't do! The crab cake was another time I thought that, with the jewel-like citrus sections, but mostly I felt like Chambers is a restaurant busy throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Many of the dishes are downright timid. A roasted beet and goat cheese appetizer ($6) at lunch was little more than tiny beets roasted, split, and plated; and balls of goat cheese, placed—it seemed like a dish in desperate need of some food. A steamed shrimp salad ($13), also at lunch, was a joke: Here I got a bag's worth of baby salad greens and a bunch of shrimp, split, placed on the greens, and drizzled with a bit of pink stuff that tasted like mayonnaise mixed with sri-cha sauce—it was a dish I'd expect to find in a corporate cafeteria. Other timid options: bacon-wrapped shrimp, roast chicken, steak and fries, a grilled pork chop, and a chocolate cake with a molten center. I know that the Midwest is uncharted territory for big-deal coast dwellers, and that this is a hotel restaurant that must cater to all tastes, but I still never thought I'd be able to get the same meal at a Jean-Georges restaurant that I could in a Mankato supper club.

A few things at Chambers Kitchen are remarkable in this market—the fabulous bars, for one. I'm an art nerd at heart, and sipping a house cocktail in any of the bars is a take-the-out-of-town-guests-worthy activity, be it the alabaster Euro-tech rooftop bar with its panoramic views, or the gorgeous urban sculpture garden with its flaming firepit, or the street-level bar with its modern-day Medici holdings of priceless contemporary art. The cocktails are unusual and memorable. I particularly liked the sweet and spicy one made with Makers Mark and passion-chili syrup ($7), and was then happy to find that most of Chambers' kitchen-made cocktails have non-alcoholic equivalents, like a passion-chili or lemon-thyme soda ($4.50). The wine list has some fascinating options that you won't find elsewhere in town, like a pleasantly sherried, complex Chenin Blanc from Sula Vineyards in India. (Sula is 180 kilometers northeast of Mumbai, don't you know.) But while a few things at Chambers are better than what you'll find up and down the avenues, not enough are.

"The lightest version of fish fingers you'll ever see": The walleye at Chambers Kitchen
Bill Kelley
"The lightest version of fish fingers you'll ever see": The walleye at Chambers Kitchen

Location Info


Chambers Kitchen

901 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Services

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

I met with Jean-Georges Vongerichten when he was in town just prior to Chambers' opening. I'd been surprised to hear from him, as well as from other diners, readers, and cooks in town, how much he's been here personally, repeatedly—really lending his energy instead of just his moniker to the project. I asked him how he could split himself between the 17 restaurants he has to his name, as well as the others with which he has consulting arrangements. It was all in the recipes, he explained to me, and then showed me a computer with more than 7,000 of his recipes, all calculated to the gram—seriously, to the gram. A recipe would call for 1,671 grams of this, 10 grams of that, 2,578 grams of another thing. This was a technique borrowed from pastry, he explained, and the only way to assure consistency when he wasn't there. What happens, I asked, if a cook puts in 1,900 grams of something, instead of 1,892? Not much, he said—but 1,920 grams, that would be his name going down in flames. In addition, these recipes all come with plating diagrams that specify how a particular cook should place every last halved grape tomato. Of course, I couldn't get this out of my mind when, say, I tried the spice-crusted striped bass ($22) on two occasions. Both times the fish was cut and cooked perfectly, the grainy spice crust ideally crisp, the flesh beautifully tender, but the first time the sweet-and-sour broth the fish rested in was unctuously buttery, and the second time it was muddy and indistinct. Who dared mess up their gram count?

Chef Vongerichten also told me that the ingredients he was finding in Minnesota often surpassed the quality of the ingredients he found in New York, especially for southeast-Asian specialty ingredients such as young ginger. The Chambers restaurant is making some good progress in discovering other local top-shelf ingredients: I was delighted to receive with my tea a tiny bottle of Ames Farm single-source honey—this one was from Baker Park, summer of 2006, and made from jewelweed pollen. It was delicious—winey and delicate, with an almost twiggy finish, like a bee-made dessert wine. My date stuck his fork in the bottle and declared it the best dessert he had had at Chambers. I disagreed. While on my first visit desserts had been sloppy, the next several occasions revealed a passion-fruit souffle ($7) with a side of dark-chocolate sorbet that was both powerfully tart and memorably delicious, and a simple caramelized banana cake ($7) that was tidy and lively. Granted, I hated the "warm chocolate cake" ($7)—don't be fooled! It's not warm, it's molten!—partly because I'm sick to death of the dish, but also because it tastes plain and dull, like cocoa, and not rich and deep, like chocolate. I wish I could go back in time and un-order it, to better affect the statistics.

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