Minneapolis on the Hudson
Gosh golly, Minneapolis is a-changing. Seems like just yesterday we had two expense account restaurants in the whole state, and now, badda bing, badda bang, you can't go three months without a major, major, major restaurant opening. Major Major Major you say, wasn't that a character in Catch 22? Yes, but stop being the most literate city in America for a moment, men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. Okay, yes, that is a second literary quote, you caught me, yes, by Dorothy Parker. But the point I'm trying to make is that the grand dame is wrong: It might take a while, but gosh darn it if this little spectacles-wearing burg isn't getting hit on left and right by New York men hoping to score big, and....
Jean Georges is coming! Jean Georges is coming! Or rather, Jean Georges is here. Who's Jean Georges? Oh, come out of your books, ye bookworms, for Jean Georges Vongerichten is only the best chef in America—or one of the top three, anyway, it's either him or Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller, depending on whom you ask. Or maybe four, with Alain Ducasse. It doesn't matter, only one of them is coming here: the Alsatian wonder with the New York empire, Jean Georges. Yes, empire: For the last couple of decades, Mr. Vongerichten has been a top-of-the-heap presence in New York, with many, many restaurants including the best-restaurant-in-America-contender Jean Georges, and also Perry Street, JoJo, Mercer Kitchen, Vong, Spice Market, and lots, lots more. So many more, really, that all a person in restaurant circles has to see is the letter J or the letter V anywhere in a restaurant name to assume it's got something to do with Jean Georges—like V Steakhouse, for instance.
Am I making the big deal of this clear? The man owns fully 13 percent of the alphabet in restaurant-world. What, you thought Wolfgang Puck was big? Wolfgang Puck is mini-golf compared to Jean Georges. Yes, I said mini-golf. With windmills and giant plaster chickens. Jean Georges is serious.
What to expect, then, from his new restaurant, bar, and lounge in the paint-is-still-drying-new Chambers Hotel that's opening on the corner of 9th and Hennepin, joining Solera, the Saloon, and Rock Bottom and thus creating the most diverse corner in the known universe? (Have there ever been stranger bedfellows? Break into groups and discuss: So, a gay raver, a tapas chef, Joe Six-Pack, and a millionaire Brit brat art collector walk into a bar...I said it first: Gosh golly Minneapolis is a-changing!)
What to expect from Chambers Kitchen by Jean Georges? For the life of me I can't quite tell. I've been to quite a few of Mr. Vongerichten's restaurants. A meal I had at his three-Michelin-starred New York flagship restaurant, called Jean Georges, was the best I've had in all my fork-lifting days. I can still see a little circle of green pistachio-crusted foie gras torchon with an offset lid made of glasslike pink sugar beside a little mound of pickled dried cherries...oh, it was a marvelous thing. The service was the best I've ever encountered, the servers seemed to have magical powers and floated weightlessly on mind-reading beams of helpfulness. And the petit fours—like dollhouse treasures made for fairy princesses! The pastry sous chef from the real, big, flagship New York restaurant, Christopher Szczeniowski is moving here, so I think I can say we are in for some pastry joy.
Still, outside of the flagship I've had some less than thrilling Jean Georges moments, like when I convinced a bunch of my fairly broke New York junior media friends to come with me to his then-new Chinese restaurant, 66. It all ended afterward in mutiny at a bar with my friends demanding their money and time back. That got ugly. This restaurant in the Chambers hotel has had rumors swirling about it for years, ever since La Belle Vie was supposed to go in there, and then got booted for a bigger name.
Those rumors initially were that our restaurant would be a Spice Market, which is Jean Georges's slick and fun Vietnamese party restaurant. And so I spent a happy meal at that restaurant, deciding it was kind of like a cross between Chino Latino and Mai Village, if those restaurants' dishes were run through a machine that made them into incredibly tasty, elegant, spa food. And if, when you looked to the table next to you, you didn't see a cute Juut hairstylist from Minnetrista, but instead were confronted with the bottomless baby blues of movie star Clive Owen. Yes, Clive Owen! He was right next to me. And I didn't fall over or put a fork through my leg or anything.
I do think that the lesser Jean Georges restaurants depend somewhat on that Clive Owen factor. Hunger may be the greatest seasoning, but movie stars do quite a bit to make a plain old stick of pork satay seem pretty special. Will there be a Clive Owen factor at the Chambers Kitchen by Jean Georges in Minneapolis? We'll see, but I'm guessing not so much, unless Target flies him in to consult on some Clive Owen-branded pocket-packs of Kleenex. (Which I would totally buy. Have a cry with Clive Owen! I'm so trademarking that...)
Pork satay, by the way, is one of the appetizers on the provisional menu at our Chambers Kitchen by Jean Georges—specifically pork satay with both green and ripe mango, crystallized tamarind, and cashews. Vongerichten loves Asian flavors, especially Vietnamese ones, but also Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian spices. Another provisional appetizer is chicken samosas with a cilantro-yogurt dipping sauce. I say provisional because, as of this writing, the place isn't yet open, but will be before this issue hits the stands, and the powers that be have warned me repeatedly that the restaurant may change everything in the last moments. Other provisional menu items include a char-grilled chicken with kumquat-lemongrass dressing and silken potatoes, and black sea bass crusted in spices and served in a bowl of sweet and sour broth.
How much will it cost? Hard to say exactly, but I had a phone interview with the general manager, Robert Bonner, formerly of the Capital Grille down the street, and he told me they're aiming for prices a little lower than the top of the market. You can probably expect to spend $35 on three courses, which I'm guessing means $8-ish desserts and appetizers and $18-ish entrees. I also spoke with Joshua Nudd, the executive chef, who just moved here, and is living in the hotel, after a career spent seaside in California and Hawaii—check him for signs of cracking this February.
The main reason it's hard to say exactly what Chambers Kitchen by Jean Georges will be is because Bonner and Nudd seemed to say that the restaurant would open as one thing and slowly evolve to another. They plan to open with a grab bag of recipes from various Jean Georges restaurants. Bonner said that the breakfast menu in the lounge is almost exactly the one from Mercer Kitchen; Nudd told me that the dinner menu is culled from other Jean Georges restaurants, "a little bit 66, a little Perry Street, a little Vong, a lot Spice Market"—but will eventually change to reflect both the tastes of the locals diners, the availability of local ingredients and produce, and, in time and with approval from the home office, Chef Nudd's own vision.
The opening wine program too, is "provisional." Ditto for signature cocktails like the Thyme Vodka Lemonade, available both in the ground-floor bar and up overhead in the "Red White and Fucking Blue Bar" (for real, that's the bar's true name), a rooftop lounge with plans to have DJ music played at levels that permit normal conversation, and serve little snacks till 2:00 a.m. (every day except Sunday and Monday, probably). The bar is named for a piece of art that writes out the memorable name in neon. Yes, that's art, it's contemporary art, and if you don't like it you can go suck on a Duchampian found object.
Really, about the only thing that the main Minneapolis folks seemed sure of was that Chambers owner Ralph Burnet's art collection of contemporary (mostly controversial, mostly British) art is jaw-dropping and fantabulous. I heard much about the large gorilla in the courtyard bar, the video installations every 17 feet in the public hallways, the original art in the suites, the mounted head (I forget of whom or what) above the registration area. I also heard about the four rev areas—you know, rev areas. Where the rev(enue) comes from. It's going to be major, major, major. (Chambers Kitchen by Jean Georges, 901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.767.6999; www.chambersminneapolis.com. Projected restaurant hours are 6:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with light food served in the bar till perhaps 2:00 a.m.)
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