Editor’s Note: Gather is now closed.
What can D’Amico and Partners* do at the Walker Art Center that the international culinary powerhouse brand of Wolfgang Puck couldn’t? That’s one of a few questions hovering over the opening this Thursday of Gather, the eclectic new lunch-driven bistro opening in the old 20.21 space.
Gather comes with a number of advantages — the Walker is an internationally known art destination, and in addition to the former 20.21 dining space, the full Walker package includes room for a casual cafe and summertime outdoor grill, plus catering opportunities.
But it comes with challenges, too. The dining space is difficult to access from the street and 20.21 long wrestled with striking a balance between serving accessible food and pleasing a high-end clientele.
The new direction seems to be a bit more casual and less Asian-inflected — the menu includes a grilled cheese sandwich, a turkey burger, and buttermilk-marinated chicken. Local sourcing (defined at Gather as ingredients coming from within 300 miles) is a supporting motif rather than a driving force — although local vendors contribute cheese, turkey, produce, and morels, the relatively short menu also includes halibut, tuna, Virginia ham, and Montana beef. Lunch entrees range from around $9-16, and dinner is a small plates menu, with plates mostly in the $10 range.
Chef Josh Brown has been with D’Amico for 14 years, since starting with the company at age 19. But his roots in food start way out West, where he was raised.
“I grew up in Montana,” says Brown, “in a little town called Havre just 20 or 30 miles south of the Canadian border. It’s way north there. It’s about two and half hours east of Glacier [National Park]. I spent a lot of time out there when I was growing up. It is so, so beautiful out there. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Brown and his family lived in town, but spent their weekends out on the family farm. “It was a wheat farm, but it also had cattle and chickens, and things like that,” recalls Brown. “We had about three acres of gardens. There’s 14 of my family members, and we’d go out there every spring and plant everything from radishes and beans and peas and turnips and corn and strawberries and potatoes and kohlrabi, and every weekend we’d go out and maintain the garden. And it’s something where here [at Gather], we’re using so many fresh ingredients that it brings me back to my childhood.”
In the fall, Brown and his family would can and pickle their vegetables, and cellar their potatoes. “It’s like The Waltons!” exclaims our photographer, Becca Dilley.
“I know!” says Brown, brightly. “That was literally our food for the winter. And we’d go out there in the winter on the weekends and we’d make bread for the family for the week — we’d come back with three loaves of bread and a can of pickled carrots, and our potatoes for the week… and that right there is where I think I fell in love with food. Just to be out in the garden and see the food and touch the food.”
HEAVY TABLE: Your mission sounds very broad. Is there anything you won’t cook here…? What’s your mandate?
JOSH BROWN: Well, it’s locally sourced and globally inspired. We’ll have a little Italian on here, a little Asian influence, definitely some American influence… I have background at Masa so I like to put a little Mexican food in there as well. There’s nothing we’re really ruling out.
It’s a lunch restaurant, so it’s going to be lighter food — there won’t be a lot of heavy sauces, you’re looking at more vinaigrettes. As far as prices go, it’s probably about $15 for a lunch.
HT: What are a couple of the dishes most representative of your style?
JB: We have a couple dishes on there that really are close to me. We have a raw and cooked vegetable salad — we take the vegetables and blanch them really quickly just to take the rawness out. And we have some raw fennel, and some radishes in there to give that really fresh bite to it.
I love working with my hands, and pasta is one of my passions. We have this fresh ricotta gnocchi with shrimp and a little tiny light butter sauce and some fresh tomatoes, and it’s killer. It’s really good. It’s a buttermilk ricotta; it has a little bit of tang. We make the ricotta and the gnocchi in house. The acid in the buttermilk ends up separating out the whey and the curd just as vinegar would, but you don’t have that vinegar bite. It’s also much creamier ricotta than traditional ricotta. It’s really cool.
[We try the ricotta, and it stands up as promised — pillowy, light, tangy gnocchi with a mild buttermilk tang, and tender, absurdly mellow, and sweet shrimp.]
JB: They’re tiger shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. We just lightly saute them in a bit of butter, and you make sure not to get the heat too hot so you don’t fry up the shrimp. And then the gnocchi are just boiled — there’s a little of lemon zest and parsley. There’s a bit of flour, but it’s the ricotta that gives it the body. For a pasta dish, it’s really light.
HT: Tell me a bit about your local sourcing.
JB: I work really closely with Bix [produce] and we’re going to use Living Water tomatoes… we’re looking at 300 miles, is where the range [is]. We going to do our best to get stuff locally. As far as produce goes, we’re not quite to the season where we can get our produce locally. Definitely all of our proteins are coming from local sources. We’ve got a really great farm in Iowa that’s doing our chicken for us.
The pork is a Berkshire pork which is a black heirloom pig, that’s right here local [from Six Point Berk]…
HT: How about the beef?
JB: The beef comes from Montana. I come from Montana as well. When I found the beef, I was really excited to see that.
HT: So, to what extent is Gather a natural extension of your career to date?
JB: I started in our catering division, and then moved into our full-service restaurant division. I worked at Campiello and so I got a really good idea of how to make pasta and make a lot of fresh dishes. From there I went to Masa and I got a nice background in Mexican food. With all the different cuisines that I’ve cooked, it’s been nice to put that into a globally inspired menu.
HT: Can you tell us a bit about the First Thursday sampling you guys are working on?
JB: The first Thursday of every month we’re going to bring in a guest chef — we’re going to start off with Jay Sparks; he’s the executive chef of our full-service restaurant division. For that first Thursday we’re going to give out a free appetizer, and get a lot of people in here — it’s kind of a cocktail party. We’re going to be butler-passing the free appetizer, and then we’re also going to have tables set up in case someone wants to sit down have a small-plate menu. We’re looking at about eight items.
The first Thursday, the appetizer is free, and past that the item will stay on the menu, and we’ll represent the chef.
[The guest chef for June is Jay Sparks of D’Amico; July is Alex Roberts of Alma and Brasa; August is Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa; and September is Adam King of Lurcat.]
HT: How are you making the food accessible and approachable for diners?
JB: The food is definitely not intimidating. There’s nothing on the menu that’s scary. We have everything from a fantastic grilled cheese that’ll bring you back to your childhood to a shortrib banh mi.
The grilled cheese uses Prairie Breeze cheddar from Milton Creamery in Iowa. One day we sampled probably 45 grilled cheese sandwiches, and we had like 15 cheeses… by the end of the day, it was like ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can eat anymore’ and it was only a little bite from each one. The Prairie Breeze cheddar just melted really nice and creamy.
[The grilled cheese is fantastic. Melty, rich, indulgent, and simple. The bread is crispy and toasty, and soup has a rich, bright flavor and a luxurious mouthfeel — it’s more like a Cordoban gazpacho (which includes lots of olive oil and pureed bread) than a traditional American tomato soup.]
HT: This is great. What’s the story behind the bread and the soup?
JB: The bread’s from New French. We tried a lot of different breads with this… It’s a Pullman bread… it’s a good, standard white bread. For me, it was the texture. The crispiness that it kept on the outside after you griddled and the softness of the inside of the bread with the creaminess of the cheese.
And the soup, it’s a simple, classic tomato soup, but we do a couple things to make it a bit more adult than a classic tomato soup. We take garlic and basil and fry it out in olive oil — we let it cook for about 45 minutes at a really low temperature so the basil gets crispy and the garlic starts to roast a little bit. And then we make tomato soup with a little bit of wine and these really good San Marzano tomatoes. Then we take that oil and put it back into the soup before we puree it so that the oil emulsifies with the acid in the tomatoes. And it gives just a beautiful mouthfeel, it coats the inside of your mouth when you’re eating it.
HT: What can people look forward to vis-a-vis the grill aspect of the restaurant?
JB: The grill opens tomorrow (May 24). We’re trying to stay with a locally sourced food feel. We’re using Amish chicken and Kramarczuk’s for sausages, hand-pattied burgers… this is all food that our chefs work with, it’s not stuff that we buy in.
HT: When you’re at home, what do you make for comfort food?
JB: I love eggs. One of my family’s favorite things to have is potatoes with a little bit of onions and some sausage with a fried egg on top. That’s one of our favorite comfort foods. I have a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old, and they’re in the kitchen cooking with me. And my 8-year-old, he flips eggs. It’s crazy. Most of them land back in the pan. About 70 percent of the time, we’re good.
Cooking with my family… I absolutely love it. My kids roll out pasta like me, and make ravioli, and we cook together in the kitchen, and it’s great — we love it.
*Corrected June 1, 2011 from “D’Amico and Sons.”
BEST BET: Based on our limited two-dish sampling, the sublime grilled cheese is worth the trip. It’s simple but profoundly rich and comforting.
Bistro at the Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
OWNER / CHEF: D’Amico and Sons / Josh Brown
Thu: Also open 5-9pm
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $9-16