"Welcome," our server said. "Tonight, all of your senses are going to be stimulated."
Insert eye roll, right? Only here's the thing: Twenty minutes into dinner at the Gray House, and I was eating my skepticism. With relish. Chef/owner Ian Gray calls his new Lyn-Lake place a gastropub -- he's channeling traits absorbed from several crawls through London's pubs -- but that label seems inadequate for cooking that frequently exudes so much aromatic, full-bodied flavor.
Then again, Gray's seasonally focused food is the dining equivalent of unpacking a much-loved winter wardrobe. There's chicken, roasted on the bone, swimming in succulent pan juices and doused in more herbs than the produce section at Lunds. Scallops are seared to a lustrous deep caramel brown and teased with candied bacon.
The heartiness of snappy skinned pork sausages is accentuated by cubes of roasted butternut squash and chewy white beans. There are hearty side dishes along the lines of carefully roasted Brussels sprouts, and a short list of appetizers is headlined by vibrant salads and a big, rustic bruschetta that is best described as a graduate course in ham sandwiches. If this is the way Gray responds to November's chills, then I can't wait to see how he reacts to January's frozen depths.
Gray and his crew keep their pastamaker busy, turning out long strands of bucatini and linguini, spiraled fusilli and wide ribbons of roughly cut maltagliati, all so expertly prepared that they could be relished with just a touch of butter or cheese. But Gray, 29 and a rising star, embellishes his pastas with assurance, whether he's juicing up forkfuls of tender chicken simmered with sweet, slow-cooked onions, or pairing figs with Wisconsin-raised ham hocks braised in Parmesan rinds.
It's fun to discover how Gray's idiosyncratic obsessions play out on his ever-evolving menu, whether it's bitter greens, or aromatics, or the deeply savory, mouth-melting young goat from Singing Hills Goat Dairy in Nerstand, Minn. The lamb-like meat is of such superior quality that Gray doesn't need to do much to unlock its wildly appealing flavor and texture.
Invoking little more than salt, pepper and know-how, Gray forever challenges pork's supremacy with ribs. Carefully charred thin-cut chops, dressed with pickled red onions and tangy yogurt (goat's milk, naturally), were similarly memorable. Still, the pinnacle might be the superb burger, a thick, juicy patty of that herbaceous ground goat meat, crowned with a slab of white Cheddar, its toasted brioche bun swiped with a lively tomato jam.
Another strategy is scouring the Minneapolis Farmers Market for offbeat ingredients. One recent find: Buying out a farmer's entire stash of ginger roots and stalks. Part of that unplanned bounty bumped up the fragrant broth that is the backbone of a soup brimming with kale, radishes, slurp-inducing udon noodles and dainty potstickers filled with roasted Hubbard squash. A percentage of it pepped up dices of velvety, coral-colored raw tuna, tiny gold grape tomatoes and bright basil and lemongrass accents, spooned over spears of grilled baguette. The rest found its way into a sage-apple-bacon fat mash that landed at Lucid Brewing, where it was infused into the brewery's golden Dyno beer. I lucked into its one-night-only appearance. The verdict? Awesome.
But it's when the subject turns to chiles and peppers that Gray is revealed as a true savant. For a guy who grew up here, Gray cooks as if he's lived his whole life near the equator -- but by not more evenly tempering his enthusiasm, he's steamrolling other, more nuanced qualities.
The bar brews a fine latté, but tea drinkers are out of luck. Sunday brunch leans overwhelmingly on the carbs and the spice levels. Desserts don't share the same pizzazz as their savory counterparts, with one exception: a compulsively appealing chocolate custard served in a glass jar. Turns out it's an homage to the phenomenal butterscotch budino at Isaac Becker's 112 Eatery.
"I have the utmost respect for Isaac Becker," said Gray. "He has inspired me, even though I've never worked for him. I guess we should start calling it the Isaac Becker Custard."
Great idea, if only because it's not a stretch to think that someday, somewhere, someone is going to be naming a dish after Ian Gray.
REVIEW ★★★★ Exceptional ★★★ Highly recommended ★★ Recommended ★ Satisfactory -- Not rated
THE GRAY HOUSE ★★★ Where: 610 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-823-4338, www.thegray houseeats. com. No reservations. Prices: Starters and sandwiches $8-$12, pastas $8-$20, entrees $14-$22. Recommended: Tuna tartare, apple salad, bruschetta, cheese plates, goat burger, roast chicken, pastas, chocolate custard.