The Gray House in Lyn-Lake, Minneapolis
With a name like The Gray House, one might expect a number of puns related to a certain series of erotic novels. But instead of 50 Shades of Gray, this new gastropub nestled into the former Risotto spot on West Lake Street might be more accurately described as 50 Shades of Tosca. Tosca being, of course, Trattoria Tosca, the quiet Linden Hills gem that we heralded last spring for its insanely fresh pasta, inventive salads, and intriguing wine list — all prepared under the careful direction of one Ian Gray.
Even though Gray now cooks about 14 blocks to the north in a cozy, candlelit nook with his own name on the door, many of Tosca’s signature dishes have made the trip with him. That’s a good thing, for the most part, but a few tweaks are necessary before The Gray House lives up to the standard its owner set at his former restaurant.
Every meal at The Gray House begins with a bread board that’s more akin to a traditional supper club relish tray than your typical bread basket. Housemade cheese biscuits and wheat thins, Castelvetrano olives, spiced nuts, and baguette slices surround a generous ramekin of compound butter rich with herbs and hops. A party could fill up quickly with the gratis grazing platter, but pace yourself, for Gray’s starters are amongst his kitchen’s strongest dishes.
The vegetable salads, like those at Tosca, wear minimal dressing but rise to the occasion with their palate-pleasing crunch and seasonal flavors. The apple salad ($7) offers a lofty pile of shredded sweetness atop a bed of leafy greens, pickled red onions, and a few toasted walnuts and blue cheese crumbles thrown in for good measure. Light and lovely, the salad’s restraint paves the way for a richer second course. The cabbage salad ($8) provides a similar shredded texture, with shards of turnip that marry well with their chevre base. If you prefer your cole slaw crisp and vinegary rather than limp and dripping with mayo, this salad’s for you. Though decidedly not a vegetable, the tuna tartare ($11) matches the salads in terms of freshness and bests them in terms of silkiness. The finely chopped tuna, tossed with a citrusy lemongrass vinaigrette, practically melts in the mouth atop crunchy, buttery crostini.
Those looking for heartier starters should turn to the squash dumpling soup ($8), with its pillows of butternut goodness enhanced by the dark, gingery broth, or the cheese plate ($14 for a half), an expansive board of rotating favorites. Ours featured a nutty Vermont cheddar, a blue that our server called St. Agnes but was probably Faribault Dairy’s St. Pete’s, and two varieties of housemade mozzarella — a classic drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and an intensely lilac roll flavored with beets. Oddly hued, yes, but it was our favorite of the two, topped with a sprinkle of coarse salt that balanced the cheese’s beet-tinged sweetness.
Gray changes up his proteins and pastas regularly, so don’t arrive with your heart set on a particular dish. Chances are you can order the tender pressed chicken ($22) or steak ($24) any night, but not necessarily both, and one night the kitchen was out of the popular scallops entree ($18), which pairs the succulent morsels with smoky, fatty bacon and crisp fingerlings to create a luxuriously simple and satisfying dish. The steak (above), though juicy and well-seasoned, is upstaged by the nest of addicting polenta and crispy mushrooms and shallots in which it’s resting. And lest you think Gray doesn’t like the pig (such as pork belly, below), on one visit three of the five entrees featured pork of some persuasion.
Tosca regulars will recognize most of the crossovers in the pasta and side-dish sections of the menu, such as the tagliatelle with chicken confit and the rigatoni with spicy tomato sauce and mascarpone ($9 for a half order). The dish offers vibrant colors, tender vegetables, and heat — perhaps a little more than necessary. That dollop of creamy cheese doesn’t tame the fiery sauce as well as it did at its former home. More successful is the toothsome maltagliati ($10 for a half order) with finely shredded chicken bathed in a tamer tomato sauce and topped with salty, stretchy goat curd. Paired with the expertly roasted Brussels sprouts ($5) or meaty, garlicky mushrooms ($5) we loved at Tosca, the pasta nurtures the soul and the stomach with its rustic charm and rich flavors.
But not all noodles are of the Italian variety at The Gray House — the menu features a few Asian-inspired bowls to surprise you. A vegetarian version ($9 for a half order) combines slippery udon noodles with broccoli and a ginger broth that crosses the border into bitter. Instead, look for the pork belly bowl with fresh pickled vegetables and a silky egg ($12), which only needs a bit more seasoning to go from good to gotta-have-it.
Desserts rotate on and off the menu as often as the entrees, but you’ll always find the amaretto chocolate custard ($5 for a half order, $8 for a full) that we devoured at Tosca. The rich chocolate pudding we remembered tastes just as delightful, but come prepared with a shoehorn to find it beneath its ridiculously thick skin. Seriously, it took five minutes to dig our way past the caramel-like top layer to reach the cocoa-rich custard inside. For a sweet treat that doesn’t require special equipment to enjoy, the apple cake ($7) with orange gelato provides a sugary crumble crust and tender chunks of apples that welcome the addition of the spicy citrus ice cream. The thoughtful selection of wine and beer, both on tap and in bottles, makes it easy to find a beverage of your liking, and at reasonable prices, to boot.
A few miscues — a lack of salt, an unevenly cooked piece of meat — prevent The Gray House from living up to the reputation Gray developed at Tosca. Table service is mostly on cue, but on more than one occasion we witnessed the all-too-common disappearing server in between the entree and dessert courses. (Sparks also fell victim to this syndrome.) The antidote? Belly up to the bar, where you can order the full menu and talk to the entertaining bartender.
But overall the miscues are just that — miscues, not major mistakes or gaping culinary chasms too wide to conquer. A mash-up of Saffron’s elegance and the homey appeal of Northeast Social, the gastropub’s comfortable charms — chalkboard-painted walls that display the daily specials and wine list, a wide and welcoming center bar, a map of the neighborhood in the shape of a pig — invite guests to hunker down for a night of lovingly prepared food that needs just a few adjustments to really shine. Once Gray and his team find their footing, soon the theme of The Gray House may be 50 Shades of Waiting for a Table.
The Gray House
Gastropub in Lyn-Lake, Minneapolis
610 W Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55408
CHEF AND OWNER: Ian Gray
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE PRICE: $10-24