Gather by D'Amico opens in the Walker
For the second time in as many years, our very own D'Amico restaurant group has played David to an international cheflebrity's Goliath, and bumped another imported toque out of a Twin Cities kitchen. First, D'Amico Kitchen ousted Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Chambers Kitchen from downtown Minneapolis. Then, this spring, the Walker Art Center decided not to renew its food service contract with Wolfgang Puck and awarded the business to D'Amico, which replaced the former 20.21 with a new concept called Gather.
When the Walker brought in Puck, back in 2005, it reached for a star chef who would add even more luster to the museum's brand-new, aluminum-clad building and offer food as artful as its world-class collection. Some local foodies viewed the move as a coup: Modest Minneapolis had attracted a chef of certain stature to our wind-swept prairie. One local magazine went so far as to plaster Puck's ruddy mug on its cover.
But other followers of the local food scene felt that the choice rang hollow. Puck was a largely absentee, international megabrand, and at a stage in his career less associated with his cutting-edge cooking at Spago than his frozen pizza line. To advocates of our homegrown talent—those of us who believed the Twin Cities were cultivating a cadre of chefs whose cooking was truly top caliber, even if it hadn't yet been duly recognized by the James Beard Foundation—the choice was disappointing.
Regardless, Puck appointed respected chefs to run 20.21's day-to-day operations, and the restaurant's French-Asian fusion cuisine certainly had its legions of fans. But even after a successful six-year run, an eatery famous for its Shanghai Maine lobster with Chinese risotto felt a little out of step with the post-recession reality. So out went that far-flung concept, and in came something more vernacular.
The new restaurant's name seems a little folksy for its space-age dining room, which still focuses on the building's dramatic Hennepin Avenue overlook and underwent only a few subtle changes in furnishings and color palette. Gather is a lunch-focused operation and serves dinner only on Thursday nights, when the museum offers free admission from 5 to 9 p.m. On the first Thursday of each month, D'Amico has arranged to bring in a local guest chef—the Walker likens it to an "artist in residence"—to prepare two unique small plates that showcase his or her style and offer free samples of each to the restaurant's diners. The special dishes then stay on the Thursday-night menu for the rest of the month. It's a symbiotic relationship: Gather helps top Twin Cities chefs introduce their cuisine to a new audience, and the guest chefs lead their fans to Gather.
D'Amico has proven success in providing museum food service (it holds contracts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Museum of Russian Art, and the Mill City Museum) and is also one of the Twin Cities' dominant caterers, which makes the group an attractive partner for one of our most stunning event venues. Six nights a week, and Mondays during lunch, private parties can book the Gather space. The setup could, in fact, potentially offer more reliable revenue than fickle day-to-day diners, particularly when the restaurant is wholly contained within the museum, without any signage or street presence to attract passersby. To differentiate its offerings at the Walker from its other catering destinations, D'Amico created an exclusive service package just for the museum, with new menu items and tableware, among other things.
Last year, the Walker opened an outdoor patio adjacent to the second-floor restaurant, and when the air is humid and the heat is sweltering, the space feels a little like Bangkok, with umbrella-topped tables next to small tropical palms and views of both the skyline panorama and freeway traffic. On Thursday nights, after the sun has slid to the west side of the building and cool breezes pick up, the Gather patio becomes one of the Twin Cities' chicest happy hour spots. From 5 to 7 p.m. all the small plates are just five bucks and the drinks are discounted. Choosing from those items, two people can assemble a full, lovely meal for less than $50.
Gather's chef is Josh Brown, a longtime veteran of D'Amico's catering operations who also cooked at the group's Campiello and Masa restaurants, and he works many locally grown and seasonal foods into an American contemporary, globally inspired menu. Although most diners might need to Google the names of some menu ingredients, the offerings still feel accessible—and nothing costs more than $20.
The summer list leans light and raw. Proteins are simply adorned, without rich, heavy sauces. The lovely seared halibut with morel mushrooms and fresh fava beans has just come off the menu, but you can still enjoy the exacting preparation of tuna crudo with green papaya and fennel matchsticks, supremed oranges, and a splash of grassy-tasting olive oil. You could choose the sirloin strip steak with a peppery raisin chutney, or ricotta gnocchi with fat, curled shrimp—both are delicious—but why not take advantage of the season with a bowl of sweet pea agnolotti? D'Amico has its roots in Italian fare, so the pasta pats are perfectly delicate and come served in a bright, intense tomato puree, which makes a great dunking mate for a plate of mini grilled cheese sandwiches (one filled with Iowa's Prairie Breeze cheddar, another with wild mushrooms and Taleggio, and another with Camembert, thin-sliced ham, and Dijon mustard when I had them).
Among the menu's other finger foods, the beef short-rib bahn mi pairs the succulent cut with house-pickled vegetables as a smart alternative to the more typical pork paté. The open-faced fried egg sandwich doesn't sound like much, but the grilled baguette is also topped with ham, mushrooms, roasted pobalano pepper, and cotija cheese. Each bite is crisp and creamy, rich with umami, and sparked with just the barest heat. For a sandwich in its sparest but still alluring form, simply slather an order of the smoked whitefish spread onto a slice of bread.
Gather also offers a strong selection of salads. Hard-cooked egg and ricotta salata (the cheese is salted and dried to more closely resemble feta) add protein to a garden-fresh haystack of bias-cut green beans and asparagus spears, razor-thin radishes, and fennel. In another option, salad greens are tossed with bits of organic chicken, fava beans, dried apricots, pine nuts, and candied lemon. But the winning combination is the simplest: feisty arugula topped with thick watermelon wedges and crumbled feta cheese, laced together by Serrano vinaigrette. It's even more stimulating than the other salads: sweet and juicy, peppery and fresh, salty, tart, and just a little spicy. I'm assuming I wasn't the only person who was inspired to pick up the ingredients on her next shopping trip and try to reverse engineer it.
In July, guest chef Alex Roberts, owner of Restaurant Alma and the Brasa eateries, added two more spot-on small plates to the list. (Chef Isaac Becker, of the 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa, will be the guest chef in August.) Beef carpaccio came with a twist: The meat had been smoked in order to stand up to the bold flavors of fried shiitake mushrooms, black garlic, and saba (a pressed grape juice that's boiled down to a more intense version of balsamic vinegar). A summery bibb lettuce cup contained shrimp that had been poached in butter and fish stock, then spiked with pickled vegetables and crunchy bits of kataifi, a shredded phyllo dough. As with the cuisine at Alma, each dish was carefully composed but not overwrought, simultaneously familiar and surprising.
Brown says he sees the guest chef program as a chance to share the stage with a dozen of the best chefs in the Twin Cities. Certainly the cross-pollinations will only inspire more creativity in both kitchens.
D'Amico's full-service restaurants have a reputation for offering a classy, consistent dining experience, and Gather meets that standard. All the details, right down to the breadbasket selection, are thoughtfully curated: A slather of Nordic Creamery's luscious gold on New French Bakery's seed-studded or raisin rye breads signals the beginning of a civilized meal. The only real misfire I encountered at Gather involved espresso drinks ordered on two separate visits that had a strong enough burnt taste to render them undrinkable.
Some diners will look wistfully at Gather's dessert list and miss 20.21's whimsical chocolate Spoonbridge and Cherry. True, Gather's goat cheese panna cotta with amarena cherries doesn't have the same sculptural ambitions, but its spare look belies spectacular flavors. The cheese's whisper of savory funk adds complexity to the sweet cream, and the custard's richness is balanced by the accompanying garnishes. A sesame crisp adds nutty sweetness, and Italian cherries preserved in syrup add an off-the-charts sweet-sour flavor that's a whole lot tastier than the former dessert's cute but ersatz marzipan fruit.
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