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Continued: Gather round at the Walker

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 17, 2011 - 9:14 AM

'We think of our restaurant as globally inspired and locally sourced," said our server.

Interesting. It's not the most original framework to hang a restaurant on, but as salutations go, it's a whole lot more promising than, "Hi, my name is Mindy, and I'm going to be your server."

I was at Gather, the D'Amico empire's entry into what had been Wolfgang Puck's 20.21 at the Walker Art Center, and, that bit of marketing banter aside, I was just past the starting gate of what turned out to be a marvelous lunch, the kind of first-rate dining experience that pairs well with a world-class art collection.

The local portion of our meal opened with a bang, a stunner of a salad composed of white asparagus, yellow wax beans, fennel, radishes and gentle hints of lemon, an exercise in summer crunch and an abstraction in pale garden colors boosted by delicate blips of green via spindly fennel fronds, a composition so pretty that it deserved a berth in one of the downstairs galleries.

Global inspiration was next, and it was a doozy. There was a skillfully seared piece of sea bass, the skin crisp, the white flesh juicy and pristine, the plate finished with an appealing room-temperature salad of quinoa tossed with tangy pickled poblano chiles. A hoisin-based barbecue sauce inserted sweet/hot tones into tender, slow-braised short ribs, which are slipped into a Roman roll and adorned with crisp daikon radishes and carrots pickled in mint and chiles, a banh mi for the ages.

Oh, and for the Italian segment of our meal, chef Josh Brown was filling toothy agnolotti with a purée of sweet peas and a creamy buttermilk ricotta he makes on the premises, dropping a half-dozen into a bowl filled with that it's-a-classic-for-a-reason combination of puréed tomatoes, white wine and olive oil.

Two bites into each dish, and I'd completely forgotten about 20.21, a restaurant I adored. While I hit a few missteps in subsequent visits (seasoning issues, timing glitches), they were outweighed by reasons to return (a pair of finely calibrated sandwiches, more salad loveliness, an iron-skillet fried chicken of the gods). Yeah, I'd say that the Walker and D'Amico, the hometown team, are a good fit.

Brown, who has spent more than a dozen years rising up the ranks in the talent-rich D'Amico organization, cooks with an agreeably light touch. He's good with economics, too, keeping prices lunchtime-reasonable by sticking to fairly basic proteins but dressing them up with smart cooking techniques and layers of flavors. It's a strategy most evident with a glorious salmon dish. The fish throbs with a deep terra cotta color, it's roasted at a low temperature until it hits a sublime velvety succulence, and it's served on a tabbouleh-inspired salad where nutty farro pitches in for bulgur and bright mint, basil and lemon tastes pop in and out of every bite. No wonder Brown got the job.

Lunchtime at its best

Unlike its predecessor, Gather is a lunch-only operation, and a return to the Walker of old, when the quirky and affordable Gallery 8 cafeteria ruled the roost. Whether that reversal is an admission that the museum's $135.6 million addition did not turn out to be the nighttime destination that had been originally planned is something I'll leave to the Walker's power structure. But I will share this: The place rocks on Thursday evenings, the one night when the museum's galleries are open, admission-free, and the building and gardens are crawling with people.

At least it was last Thursday, and so was Gather, which was hosting its first-Thursday-of-the-month event, where Brown shares his exhibition kitchen with another Twin Cities chef. August's guest star was 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa chef/co-owner Isaac Becker, and while he was working the room, schmoozing guests, the staff was doling out free nibbles of a fantastically fatty cold porchetta on a cracker, along with tiny foie gras meatballs paired with delicately browned gnocchi. As is the custom, both of Becker's dishes will remain on the Thursday evening menu through the end of the month.

To feed his Thursday night customers, Brown cherry-picks dishes from lunch and then adds a few well-conceived ringers, including a salt-crusted sirloin strip finished with a thick, sweet-hot raisin/pepper chutney and an array of dainty grilled cheese sandwiches.

Pastry chef Randee Zarth's work is brief but effective, most notably a luscious panna cotta with a tangy goat cheese bite, the plate dressed with black cherries. Oh, and Brown and Zarth have also vastly improved the offerings at the Garden Grill, the summer-only burgers-and-brats stand outside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

A new palette

Andrew Blauvelt, the museum's design director, has smartly tweaked the former house of Puck, some of the city's most challenging real estate for food and drink. Rich shades of eggplant and bronze soften the space's angular whiteness, and harsh acoustics have been dampened with well-placed heavy curtains and tufted banquettes. The uncomfortable Bertoia wire chairs have sexy black replacements from cutting-edge German designer Konstantin Grcic, and an industrial chandelier -- by New York design darling Niche Modern -- gives the room a much-needed visual anchor.

There's something vaguely (and wonderfully) Halston showroom, circa 1972, about it all. and it's how I imagine architect Edward Larrabee Barnes had secretly envisioned a restaurant when he designed the Walker's 1971 purple-brick monolith, before settling upon a monastic, all-white interior color palette.

The room's gasp-inducing views remain, although they're even better outdoors on the rooftop patio, particularly at night. Last Thursday, one of those magical evenings that makes up for every endless Minnesota winter, we watched, awestruck, as the sunset came alive in the kind of pink-lavender explosion that would have glued Monet to his easel, the downtown skyline glowing as background. The tourist board, in its wildest dreams, couldn't brainstorm a more effective Visit Minneapolis ad campaign.

One question: What happened to the Warhols? The pair of Campbell's Soup screenprints that once greeted diners have been replaced by a large monitor that features works from the museum's video collection. Sadly, what was once a venue for iconic -- and food-related -- art is now just another annoying flat-screen TV in a bar.

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  • Photo gallery: Restaurant Review; Gather

    Wednesday August 10, 2011

    Rick Nelson reviews 'Gather' at the Walker Art Center.

  • Pan seared barramundi

  • At Gather, the dramatic window table is reserved for larger parties.

  • GATHER

    Rating: ★★★

    Location: 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-253-3410, www.walkerart.org.

    Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tue.-Sun., dinner 5-9 p.m. Thu.

    Atmosphere: Edward Larrabee Barnes takes up residence inside the Playboy Mansion.

    Service: Smooth and enthusiastic, about what you'd expect from a D'Amico operation.

    Sound level: Loud when full, but an improvement over the 20.21 era. Could the music's volume be lowered a titch?

    Recommended dishes: Salmon, barramundi, vegetable salad, banh mi, fried chicken, sweet pea-ricotta agnolotti, panna cotta.

    Wine list: Workmanlike. The bar's real talent lies in crafting highly quaffable (and noon-hour-friendly) non-alcoholic cocktails.

    Price range: Most lunch entrees hover in the $8-$12 range.

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