10 June 2008

Chambers Kitchen

Except for an apocalyptic meltdown in an Indian restaurant in Iowa City when our firstborn was an infant, our three kids are excellent dining companions. We’ve been eating out since they were born, and now, with all of them in elementary school, we go everywhere with them. We eat a lot of phở in the Twin Cities, but we also try other places. Last winter (which just ended!) my wife and I went to Chambers Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, and but for the ice bar in the center courtyard, where ice cubes weren’t needed, we didn’t know we were in Minnesota. We shared an excellent meal and, in the chic setting, had to be reminded that middle-aged parenting excludes us from the beautiful crowd.

Still, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s place is pretty swell, and it took my wife a little time to convince me that we wanted to go there after a full day in the garden, landscaping and doing early summer house chores. But, after a shower and a change into cleaner shorts, we headed up. Thankfully she convinced me – this meal was better than the first!

With kids, we typically dine at restaurants on the early side, when the crowds are thin and the kids aren’t ravenously hungry. That’s part of dining out with kids – knowing their needs and not expecting miracles – like expecting them to eat three hours later than usual.

We settled into the downstairs restaurant with its oh-so-soft leather seats; I sat for half the meal with my arm draped on the top of the seat so I could feel the leather against my skin. From the light, gallery-whiteness of the upstairs lobby and bar, the restaurant is cool, mod and post-industrial.

What we liked best is hard to say. Go there and eat the food yourself because words aren’t very filling, and rarely do they have much taste. If I could eat words that tasted like food I’d write about the slow cooked, sashimi-grade salmon with maitake mushrooms because the pages would flake like softened or melted shale and you might be in awe of the translucent red and pink of the fish flesh which swam some short time ago in waters still possibly clean, cold, and well oxygenated. Why shale? Like salmon, it’s of the earth with its own identity, and you might think shale is hard and brittle the way some people think salmon is a piece of well done crumbly flesh that tastes vaguely like fish. In this dining experience, though, the words of the fish were flesh and our forks pulled at the pieces, paying homage but savage still. We ate with restraint, tasting slowly, letting the chef’s own vision and order of things arrange our mouths and senses in a new way.

The grouper played with a Mediterranean style and Asian ingredients. The floral notes of coriander balanced a light cayenne pepper coating, and together with the napa cabbage – almost kim chee-like, cucumber and red onion, it was a summer-fresh presentation. The kids also loved the thick Berkshire pork chop sitting on a bed of crisp, juicy tender, plant-based yummy vegetables that kids love. An awesome blueberry soufflé with fresh fresh bright grapefruit and a wee bit of ice cream/mascarpone-like white cheese delight and we were really set.

What do good restaurants do? They remind of, sometimes jolt us, into recognizing the contradictions between our mammalian need for food and our ordered and structured cultural traditions that put food into a framework. The restaurants I enjoy feed me by giving me history, poetry and politics along with my meat and three. It’s easy to be dismissive and critical of restaurants that try to be great restaurants, and we sometimes get mixed up between pretentiousness and creativity. Memorable meals, like this one, give a chef the opportunity to tell a story with food, to weave together cultures and traditions, nourishing us, bringing us together - to celebrate, to eat, to remember.