901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
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.
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.
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.
What statistics? These: Chef Vongerichten explained to me that the Minneapolis Chambers Kitchen is essentially a restaurant that will create itself, because every week the management will, through the miracle of computers, be able to analyze which dishes sold well—those dishes will be kept, and the outliers dropped. Over time, patterns will emerge. If Chambers patrons prefer fancy fish, we'll get more fancy fish. If we prefer more plain steak, we'll get more plain steak. If we order more bargains, we'll have a menu with more bargains. If we stampede toward the luxury items...you get the idea. The early incarnation of the restaurant is, then, nothing but a starting place. So, I knew going in that this restaurant would be an early sketch, but I never anticipated how unsatisfying it would be to eat in such a sketch. Then, there's the issue of whether the experiment gets poisoned because the very people who would be your regulars never are, since they came early and ran off to the next big thing, telling everyone they know as they went: Is that all there is?
Minnesota is, as we all know, a uniquely challenging place to newcomers. Natives keep their cards close to the vest and are cheerful, watchful, but often make very elaborate judgments behind that poker face masked with a polite, nothing-going-on-in-here smile. If you start to hang yourself, Minnesotans will often just let you, and not say anything, as they don't want to embarrass you and/or be wrong themselves. On my first visits to Chambers Kitchen the house was packed, but on my last they finally debuted their tasting menu ($65 or $75 for six or seven courses, available nightly) and the joint was empty as a corncrib in July. I enjoyed hearing myself talk (no kidding, right?), but was also put in mind of dear doomed Aquavit, consigned to a slow death with locals telling them: "Oh, you're wonderful!" and then avoiding the place like it was on fire. Will Minnesota be to New York restaurateurs what the Russian front was to would-be European conquerors? Will we kill all comers with rapier judgments concealed behind you-betcha smiles? Time will tell, but in the meantime I offer this to our new friends: I've been here for more than 10 years now, and while there certainly are some dullards and dopes around the place, in general, if you underestimate Minnesotans they will eat you for dinner, and not leave a tip.
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