Chef Ian Gray's sharp seasonal sensibilities elevate the Gray House.
Just when I thought I'd heard it all, our server delivered a whopper of a salutation. With a straight face, no less.
"Welcome," he 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 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, eating 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 snips of candied bacon.
The unabashed heartiness of snappy skinned pork sausages is accentuated by cubes of roasted butternut squash and chewy white beans tossed with tiny pearl onions. 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, given its multiple layers of complementary flavors and textures. 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.
Lyn-Lake has become a pasta destination of some distinction. 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 years old and a genuine rising star, embellishes his pastas with a deft 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, or showcasing the guaranteed goodness that comes from nudging tomatoes on the stove for a few hours and adding hints of basil, thyme, sage and garlic.
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 that he sources from Singing Hills Goat Dairy in Nerstrand, Minn. The lamb-like meat is of such superior quality -- the animals are clearly pampered like pashas on the farm's rolling grasslands -- 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 (sourced, as all the breads are, from Patisserie 46) swiped with a lively tomato jam.
When is the last time you stumbled across a goat burger? Here's a guess: never. That absence of predictability is one way Gray makes his new venture stand out from the crowded gastropub field. Another strategy is scouring the Minneapolis Farmers Market for offbeat ingredients, then getting busy. One recent find: Buying out a vendor'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 -- bite-size vegetables are another Gray fascination -- and bright basil and lemongrass accents, a looks-basic-but-isn't treat spooned over spears of grilled baguette.
As for the rest, it found its way into a sage- apple-bacon fat mash that landed at Lucid Brewing in Minnetonka, where it was infused into the brewery's golden Dyno beer, one of the bar's ever-growing line of flavor-packed, limited-edition brews. I lucked into its one-night-only appearance. The verdict? Awesome.
Gray is deep into pantry building -- curing hams, pulling mozzarella and burrata and pickling everything in sight are regular kitchen duties -- but it's when the subject turns to chiles and peppers that he's revealed as a true savant. Inspiration, not to mention a steady and staggeringly varied supply, comes from a friend and intrepid urban gardener, then Gray passionately inserts their warm-you-up-from-the-inside-out abilities across most of his menu.
A turn-key property
That full-throated passion for chile-induced heat is admirable -- for a guy who grew up here in Cream of Wheatville, Gray cooks as if he's lived his whole life near the equator -- but by not more evenly tempering his enthusiasm, he's frequently steamrolling other, more nuanced qualities.
Anyone who dined at Risotto, the space's previous tenant, will have a sense of déjà vu. Little has changed beyond a fresh coat of paint (gray, of course), switched-out light fixtures and new chalkboard menus. It's spare, but it works.
If only it weren't so drafty. Other disappointments: The bar brews a fine latte, but tea drinkers are out of luck. What's with that? Sunday brunch leans heavily -- overwhelmingly so -- on the carbs and the spice levels.
Desserts don't share the same pizazz as their savory counterparts, with one exception, a compulsively appealing chocolate custard served in a glass jar, its supple texture roughed up with crushed amaretti cookies, its gently bittersweet bite tempered by layers of buttery caramel and thick whipped cream.
Turns out it's an homage to the phenomenal butterscotch budino -- itself a tribute to Los Angeles superchef Nancy Silverton -- that has long anchored the dessert roster at Isaac Becker's 112 Eatery. Like Becker -- who is probably funding his children's college educations on the runaway sales of that deceptively simple sweet -- Gray risks a major financial setback, if not an out-and-out revolt, should he ever rid his menu of this exercise in enriched chocolate goodness.
"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.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib
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