The origins of Lyndale Avenue, that main Minneapolis thoroughfare, are somewhat murky. There are some who think the road may have started as a Native American path from the Mississippi River to Minnehaha Creek or even to burial mounds in Bloomington. By the 1850s, it was a well-worn road from the city of Minneapolis to the half dozen flour mills on Minnehaha Creek. In the day, wheat farming was the main activity of south Minneapolis, and horses were the way wheat was planted, harvested, and taken to market; eventually there would be large horse stables on Lake and Lyndale. (The wonderful Schatzlein Saddle Shop on Lake is a living descendant of those horse-centered times.) Speaking of Lake Street, it got its start as a path for soldiers to get from Fort Snelling to the bar district near Lake Calhoun in Uptown (who says history isn’t destiny?). And so the LynLake neighborhood got its start, never the most glamorous in the city but always well-traveled and well-used as folks got to downtown or Uptown to spend or make money, in whatever was the fashion of the time.
It seems on point to bring this history up right now, because there are two new restaurants on Lyndale this season that are very of the moment, in ways that seem worth paying close attention to, both for their culinary accomplishments and for what they say about the city of Minneapolis just now. They have a lot in common. Most notably, they’re both run by young married couples in which one of the two is the chef, and they both transmit a distinctly personal hospitality, as if you’re being welcomed into family homes.
The Gray House family restaurant, as it were, is presided over by Ian Gray, the 29-year-old chef who owns the spot with his wife, Katie. Ian Gray can be seen every night, often in a straw fedora, running food to the tables as if to see who’s really ordering the food and whether they really like it. I liked it. I liked it very much. I liked the utterly casual, cerebral-dude vibe, with everything in the space dark and functional—dark walls, dark tables, a dark bar, and a darker swath of chalkboard paint to contain news of the ever-changing specials—and, among the darkness, indie rock, good beer, and generous portions of surprising and good food.
Each meal starts with a complimentary updated relish tray: grilled bread, herbed olives, seasoned nuts, bread and crackers, and a spread or butter of the day—the best I tried was a surprising one with fresh green hops, in which the initial cream of the butter was followed by a lengthy, pleasantly bitter finish. The hops in the butter are one of many tip-offs that The Gray House is a beer-centered restaurant, with three-dozen craft ales, six on tap and the rest in bottle, available at any given moment.
Beer takes a starring role in many dishes; it stars in a fiery chili, in a stout-marinated fresh ham, and in a silky tagliatelle finished with a sauce of fresh hops and grana padano, among others. There is also a solid wine list of two dozen options, but Gray’s passion seems to lie more with beer, and his unique food, while certainly wine-friendly, is even beer-friendlier. What, exactly, is unique and beer-friendly food? It might be something like Gray’s astounding tuna tartare with lemongrass vinaigrette and fresh ground cherries. The berry-bright tuna was dressed with silky, almond-tasting Spanish olive oil that had spent time with lemongrass, then tossed gently with bright gold ground cherries and just-minced chives. The dish had the casual look of a haystack just swept together, and yet every bite was like some little flute song of joy, with sweet, lemony, herbal, and pure flavors tumbling over one another like bubbles in the turn of a swift stream.
Another unique dish: tortelli with ham hock, figs, a port wine reduction, and blue cheese. If that sounds like too much sweet in a dish, that was my instinct too, but what arrived was a plate of pasta so light it nearly levitated, with little gossamer stuffed pockets animated by a bit of tender ham hock meat and cheese, the port and blue cheese deployed like mere embroidery stitches to pull the simplicity of the pasta into sharp relief. Gray is a wonder with pasta, a legacy of his time as chef at Trattoria Tosca and his prior stint at Café Lurcat. His pork belly udon should go onto the elite ramen list of any elite ramen hunters, and his meat ragu is like a velvet umami hammer.
Gray’s other great strength is in braised and roasted meats. His beer goat chili was a truly fiery and tender masterpiece, layered with different sorts of hot, from horseradish to harissa to fresh chilies, and, within the fire, succulence.
If it doesn’t sound like Gray has any particular allegiance to any particular cuisine, that’s true. He’s part of the new generation of chefs who have grown up with the level playing field of the Internet and endlessly accessible recipes, as well as the simultaneous reality of European travel being something they can’t afford. The boomer model of American restaurants followed a predictable formula: American discovers Europe, returns home, tries to pull the United States in a European direction. Our new generation of chefs is far more likely to evolve their own thing, from the Internet and their own smartphone research. Sometimes this can be disastrous, but Gray seems to have a uniquely sensitive palate that lets it all come together charmingly. His “banoffee” pie one night, an astonishingly homey and delicious toffee banana cream concoction, began as an experiment due to his recent interest in the 1980s BBC cooking stars the Roux Brothers, as seen on YouTube. It ended well because he’s a really good cook.
Another really good cook has set up shop a few blocks down Lyndale at the Nightingale. That’s where Carrie McCabe-Johnston, a longtime cook for Alex Roberts at Restaurant Alma and Brasa, has opened her own restaurant with her husband, Jasha Johnston, a longtime bartender from another Lyndale establishment, Mortimer’s. The first thing any longtime Lyndale Avenue haunter will notice on entering the Nightingale is that not a single shred of the grotty former bodega that inhabited the space remains. The second thing you’ll notice is that the place has that magic spark; it’s just chic and comfy in a way that makes you want to be in the space and maybe be photographed there too—everything’s on point, from the interesting Mad Men–era sea-urchin statement art on the wall to the utterly proper Sazerac cocktails in the prettily proportioned glasses.
Is the spot really a bar or really a restaurant? That is hard to say. It’s essentially very casual. All the food is shareable small plates, some of which truly are swoon-worthy, like the delicately cut but boldly flavored steak tartare with satiny lemon aioli layered over small cubes of tender Jerusalem artichoke. A warm duck meat, pumpernickel crouton, and beet salad was rich and simple, a sort of variation on panzanella, with the bread moist and irresistibly plump with dressing, the beets sweet, the meat rich . . . it is the rare salad that can hold its own beside a cocktail. The burger, topped with tangy four-year cheddar and beautifully rosy and tender when ordered medium rare, is a true gem. And the fries are ones to draw fry fans from all over the city, hand cut and roasty as they are. I thought other dishes were less successful—salt and pepper prawns gummy, a fresh ricotta bruschetta strange in the way it was covered with a layer of nuts and seeds that scattered like birdseed as you tried to eat it.
Still, the chic factor outweighs any quibbles you might have with the food; it just feels so good to be at the Nightingale. “Even though I am the chef, I’d say one of the things I learned most from Alex Roberts [at Alma] was the importance of humility,” Carrie McCabe-Johnston says. “You have to make food because you want to satisfy people, not because you want to make a big name for yourself. The best compliment I’ve gotten is when people say there’s a familial vibe and a gracious, generous feeling.” My guess is that McCabe-Johnston will hear that again and again, especially after people try her chocolate pot de crème—nearly pure good Belgian chocolate and cream, gilded with fat sea salt crystals and whipped cream. It’s a knee-weakening delight, an old-fashioned simple joy.
In fact, a lot of what’s on display in these new restaurants is old-fashioned: Many chefs came out of the Great Recession with new-old ideas of how the economics of restaurants should work—that restaurants should be small enough that sweat equity is a significant asset, small enough that family is enough if times get tough, but flexible enough that growth and professional aspiration is possible, to keep mom and pop challenged and happy. While neither of these restaurants represents a sea change or a revolution in the history of Lyndale Avenue, they’re both a very welcome development in modern history.
Where to Find Them
Gray House, 610 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-823-4338, thegrayhouseeats.com
Nightingale, 2551 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-354-7060, nightingalempls.com