Core Competencies

New Via and Gangchen Have Little in Common, Except That They're Serving the Needs of Their Diverse Communities Uncommonly Well

There's a very funny story in the October Gourmet magazine, written by New York City chef Dan Barber, about the mad lengths he went to when he believed he had the New York Times restaurant critic in his then-newly opened restaurant, Blue Hill. What kind of mad lengths? The maddest: filling the dining room with friends and family to exclaim over the food, putting together an improvised soup of that morning's farmers'-market asparagus, cutting into a just-caught halibut to snare the fattest belly cut, wrapping the menus in factory-fresh menu covers, and more.

This story was particularly hilarious to me, because just last month I had a lengthy email exchange with another critic I know, during which we mused over when anonymity is helpful and when it isn't. I mean, I'm all for anonymity; I use it daily. Like most American food critics, I visit restaurants anonymously, fully armed with pseudonymous credit cards, pseudonymous reservations, a caller-ID blocking phone, and, when absolutely necessary, wigs. Still, most of the time all of this is completely unnecessary. Why? Because very, very few restaurants have a fresh halibut in the kitchen, have a staff that knows how to cut it, or could tell the belly cut from a rerun of 30 Rock. What they do have is a frozen, Cryovacked, pre-portioned slab of protein and a jar of balsamic vinegar-based salad dressing to cook it in.

In fact, most critics I know feel reasonably certain that, with a solid chunk of the restaurants out there, you could send an engraved invitation announcing your visit, and you could arrange for chef Joel Robuchon himself to fly in on a gilded steed to assist in the cooking, and here's what would happen: For three hours the head chef would argue with Chef Robuchon about why no one can afford to make their own salad dressing, why the best possible sauce for chicken is a reduction of Mrs. Butterworth, soy sauce, and jam, and why there's really no difference between a cheesecake from Sam's Club and a homemade one.

The great outdoors: Very likable Via boasts Edina's nicest patio
Alma Guzman
The great outdoors: Very likable Via boasts Edina's nicest patio

Location Info

Map

Gangchen Bar and Restaurant

1833 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

That's all that would happen. I swear it.

Meanwhile, outside of a very few sushi bars, no one—not the customer, not the critic, not anybody—really gives a flying fig about center belly cuts of anything. Let's be real, most nights all you care about is the opportunity to have tasty food at a price you want to pay, served by people who are nice to you. Right? Right. Is that so hard? Of course it is. So this week I pay tribute to two very different new restaurants, which, while I wouldn't recommend anyone drive across town for, serve the needs of their different communities beautifully.

The first is Via, the new restaurant just south of Southdale on France Avenue in Edina. The first time I went to Via, for lunch, the entrance to the restaurant was blocked by a pack of women so identical to one another that one half-expected the narrator from the Westminster Dog Show to chime in: "The judge will be looking at key characteristics of the breed including a motionless Botox forehead, Pilates-enhanced hindquarters, and a minimum of three carats of white or pink diamond between elbow and first knuckle; approved coat colors include ash, tawny, and even strawberry blond...." They were examining the big, glossy urn that stood beside Via's front door, and discussing whether it was too much, or something to run inside and find the source of.

Oh, you think I'm too cynical? Well, it's been said that cynics are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and really it's all I can cling to when confronted with so very many people who know the price of everything and can write you a check.

In any event, once I got inside I was saddened by all the choices I've made in my life that prevent me from lunching at Via while complaining about my cat's acupuncturist: This place is easy on the eyes, entirely competent, and, across the board, thoroughly appealing. The space once housed a Pizzeria Uno, but I didn't detect even a whiff of the former tenant: Now it's all Casablanca tones of cinnamon and gold silk, sparkling chandeliers, French techno, outdoor fire pits, and, generally, pure, spacious, buzzy chic.

The kitchen delivers food that isn't particularly groundbreaking, but is uniformly likable. Cracker-crusted pizzas, called "brick-oven flats," are a highlight. For these the restaurant stretches a pizza crust till it's as thin and taut as a drum skin, decorates it with toppings, and cooks it at high heat in a brick oven until the crust is crisp as candy and the toppings fuse into a cheery burst of high-impact flavor. My favorite was the version made with little nubs of fennel sausage, slices of kalamata olive, and tangy Chèvre ($11); each square of the pizza was robust, strongly flavored, and lively.

A big platter of fresh-made potato chips ($5) was decadent and fun; the chips are so thin you could practically see through them and so crunchy that they snap between your teeth, though they don't crunch much once you pile them high with creamy spoonfuls of chive-flavored sour cream or a gentle roasted-corn pico de gallo. I did think Via's coconut rock shrimp ($11) could stand a little more coconut flavor in the batter, and I also thought the house spring rolls needed a lighter sauce than the accompanying sweet black bean one. However, these missteps were offset by positives such as a mellow Caesar salad ($8) featuring a nice, light, but appropriately bold dressing on large fresh leaves of Romaine. I could see how this hearty yet pretty version could become a local favorite.

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