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Blue Ribbon Pie!
First Bite: District Fresh Kitchen + Bar
By: Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl | Posted: 04/23/2014
Ever been in Europe and found one of those hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you get three courses of the local cuisine—that’s a prix fixe (fixed price) menu, btw—and a cheap bottle of wine, and it feels just generous and relaxed and civilized? And then you look at your travel partner and say, "Life would be so much better if we had this at home." Well, it turns out we do have that at home. Or, more specifically, at The Gray House. It’s been going on for nine weeks and it is excellent.
Here’s the deal. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday chef/owner Ian Gray offers a three-course menu for $20. The menu changes every week and there's always a vegetarian option. I dropped by twice this week and can report: It’s very, very good.
Here’s how it went, when I was there. First off, it’s actually almost four courses because the first thing you get is a nice plate of spiced nuts, slices of Patisserie 46 bread, and, lately, a nicely bitter house-made fresh hop butter. This week the first course was a big tangly plate of teensy weensy microgreens shot through with crisp frizzled threads of fried leek, all of it in a sherry pepper vinaigrette. It was sort of like onion rings and hot sauce, rendered as a healthy fancy salad. Ian Gray has a close connection with the local farm Singing Hills Dairy, and this week a few of the goat dishes—both milk and meat—were showcased. I loved the tender goat meatballs lightened with a bit of chevre and served with a heap of fast skillet-roasted kale with onion, dressed with lemon and honey. The whole thing was tender and ever so slightly sweet-sour coming together with a beautiful meadow quality: green, gamey, sensual, and primal.
A gentler dish was the gnocchi mac 'n' cheese, which had happy-chewy little nubbins of gnocchi in a very creamy light cheese sauce, scattered with finely minced scallions. They were a snuggly blanket in food form; all comfort, comfort, comfort. There was also a vegan option I didn’t try, roast dates with onions, sunflower seeds and lemon. The final course this week was a cheesecake made with chevre, served with a dark cherry reduction, it was beautifully tangy, and the cherries gave it a nice earthy edge.
I’ve always liked the The Gray House space, it’s urban and classic, one wall is all big windows with a street view, there’s a general aura of romantic but low-key candlelight, made even lower key by the room’s primary wall decoration of chalkboard with the day’s beers or specials. It’s super casual, but pleasantly cool. I like the sound level: There’s music, but it’s played at a level to permit intimate conversation.
It all brings me back to that idea of that perfect vacation restaurant you stumble into in Europe. It's just good and regular and right.
I might be conjuring that image partly because Gray cooks in a striking, and I think rather original, way. He cooks simply, with healthy ingredients, but absolutely full throttle with spice and char: The cauliflower side is a great example of this, slabs of cauliflower roast till they bloom black on the edges, then combined with house-made oil packed Calabrian peppers, the whole thing then jumbled in with garlic, fennel, shallots, and lemon juice and cooked until all the different intense elements combine in a bold and zingy crescendo—if you’re on a hunt to find cauliflower that gives you the general joy and wallop of veal saltimbocca, this is that cauliflower.
But that’s not all! I called Gray to find out some details of the dish and whether the prix fixe is going to go away (he says no). He told me he’s bought a ‘hop rocket,’ a doohickey of a basket that affixes to a tapline and allows a chef to pass beer through the hop rocket and flavor it on the way to the glass. He says he has experimented with Carra Carra oranges, fresh chili peppers, lemons, blood oranges, and cryovac frozen hops harvested last fall, and anticipates making particular beers to pair with particular dishes on the menu. That’s going to be a pretty cool Tuesday night in Uptown.
Gray House, 610 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-823-4338, thegrayhouseeats.com
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.See bio
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