Gray House welcomes intrepid diners
Goat: so hot right now. No, really, it is. And not just for cheese, milk, luxury soaps, or painfully cute YouTube videos (do yourself a favor and look up "baby goats on a seesaw"), but increasingly as the star protein in your entree. As recently as five or six years ago, it used to be that you'd only see goat meat — also called cabrito in Mexican cuisine and chevon by some European chefs and PR wizards attempting to give it a more exclusive-sounding spin — on menus of specialty and ethnic restaurants. But these days goat, the most widely consumed meat in the world, has become more mainstream on American menus, even here in the Twin Cities, where we are lucky to have a local purveyor like Nerstrand-based Singing Hills Goat Dairy producing all kinds of quality goods from its humanely raised animals. So with the seemingly unavoidable global bacon shortage impending, goat seems poised to become the protein de rigueur, but it's going to take the efforts of chefs like Ian Gray, owner of the recently opened Lyn-Lake restaurant the Gray House, to bring it to our collective attention.
So I was pleased to see goat all over the place on the Gray House's very seasonally focused menu, but more importantly I was overjoyed to see how accessible the St. Louis Park native is making this less-familiar meat. He's rolling it into a spicy burrito with scrambled eggs at brunch, simmering it in a pot of game-day-ready, beer-infused chili for a hearty appetizer, and making a supper of marinated, grilled goat chops with goat's-milk yogurt and basil. The chops are tender, a little grassy, and almost sweet, like a leaner, more interesting piece of pork. The meat is simple and delicious. Goat doesn't belong on Bizarre Foods, y'all. It belongs in your belly.
"I'm actually working on doing some goat ribs right now," chef Gray tells me while explaining the spontaneous and experimental nature of the kitchen he runs. "But before you know it, that goat will be gone and we'll be thinking of every which way we can to use the whole pig we just got. I know it might deter some diners, but seasonality is what I'm all about. You're not going to see green beans or asparagus on any of our plates this winter. I go to the farmers' market every day, and I don't really rely on recipes. I think about how to best use and bring together everything I have at the moment." Goat: Get it while you can.
Even over the span of a week I saw a handful of dishes come and go on the menu. Japanese udon noodles with local ginger were there one day and gone the next, when a house-made rigatoni with chevre took its place. The preparation on the Callister Farms pressed, bone-in chicken changes almost nightly. "My wife says I fail at consistency," Gray laughs. "But I'm always confident that any replacement dish will be just as good-tasting as the last, and that's the kind of consistency that I am really concerned about." A dish he'll try to keep on the menu indefinitely is the scallops, which have quickly become a standout favorite. "I think for the portion and the $18 price, there's no better plate of scallops in town," says Gray. The flavor ain't bad either. It's a classic combination of salty slab bacon and the sweet and delicate shellfish, drizzled with honey and mustard creme fraiche and served with roasted, bite-size fingerling potatoes.
Though Gray admits to being influenced by some of the dishes he cooked during stints at Cafe Levain, W.A. Frost, Bar Lurcat, and as the sous chef at Trattoria Tosca in Linden Hills, he says he doesn't plan on sticking to any one culinary tradition or region when it comes to the menu at his own restaurant. But his roots in Italian cooking show through in all the handmade pastas. A tortelle stuffed with ham hocks and squash and served with blue-cheese butter, figs, pickled onions, and a port reduction really worked, with its wintry, Germanic tones. One of our favorite dishes was a spicy cabbage salad with a cava vinaigrette and a few chunks of goat cheese. Creamy and crunchy textures blended perfectly, and hot peppers kept it from being bland or picnicky.
Gray is also venturing into doing a lot of his own butchering in-house, and he frequently posts pictures of his works-in-progress to the restaurant's Facebook page. "It's not to be morbid at all. It's not parading around with heads on sticks or anything. We just want to be transparent and show how important it is to us to know where our food comes from," Gray explains. "I like to know that I can go to the Mill City Farmers Market this weekend and talk to the woman who raised this animal. No offense to other restaurants who have a different concept, but when you're using a massive supplier like Sysco, all you know about that beef is that it comes from a 'seven-state region.' That's scary to me."
Gray's wife, Katie, is a manager and co-owner of the restaurant who also helps head the beer and wine program. Just like with the entrees and appetizers, the couple's relationships with local brewers, suppliers, and even reps seem to shape decisions about what's on tap, which means they have some unique options when it comes to beer. "When we learned about Epic out of Utah, we really identified with them," Gray says. "Each of their batches is totally different — they don't ever really stick to the same recipe, kinda like me." Thankfully Gray House serves half-pints, so it's a great place to try one or two (or three or four) new brews.
The couple is also working with local brewer Lucid to create custom firkins by making pulps out of different ingredients like ground cherry (also used in a light and lovely tuna tartare with lemongrass) and coriander or the most recent batch of apple, sage, bacon fat, and ginger that will go into a barrel of Lucid Air. "When it's all done we'll tap the firkin and sell it to the customers. It's a great collaboration."
Passion, vision, and philosophy aside, there are downsides to being so committed to Gray's style of of-the-moment seasonal cooking. "I think this winter is going to be a really worrying one for me," Gray says. "We're stocking up where we can on root vegetables, squash, that sort of thing, but the pace of how we do things will probably have to change a little." To prepare for his real pioneer experience, Gray plans to do more with Thousand Hills beef and look into trying to use his connections out East to get ahold of fresh seafood.
Still, for someone who has accomplished so much in a relatively short time, Gray comes off pretty laid-back, but he has a clear focus on the future of the restaurant and the experience he is trying to create for neighborhood diners. "We want to be part of a whole story — for the people who helped raise our food to have a local connection, and for the people who eat that food to feel a connection to it. It all kind of closes the circle on food, drink, and company. We encourage people to come in and have a one-on-one experience with their food and with the person sitting across from them."
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