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Friday, February 18, 2011

Wolfgang Puck Sent Packing! Gather Coming, and More Walker Changes

Wolfgang Puck Sent Packing! Gather Coming, and More Walker Changes

Todd Buchanan

How surprised was I to hear that the Walker Art Museum was not renewing Wolfgang Puck’s contract to provide restaurant and catering services, and would be replacing 20.21 with a D’Amico restaurant? Pretty darn surprised. I feel like I’ve been the only critic to ever say that place was less than fabulous.

But perhaps I was the only person to say it in print? Anyway, here’s the down-low on the new restaurant that’s coming: It’s called Gather, it’s modern American, with a healthy focus, from the D’Amico restaurant company (of D’Amico Kitchen at the Chambers, Lurcat, Campiello, Masa, and the two dozen D’Amico and Sons). The chef will be Josh Brown, who has worked for D’Amico for ten years, cooking at the restaurant Masa, but also in the catering side of the company. The D’Amicos plan to operate Gather as a lunch and Thursday-night dinner spot, and will expand the outdoor grill. The menu will be calorie-conscious, healthy, locally-sourced when possible, and will offer dishes like a warm wild-salmon salad on beets with mustard sauce, or a harissa roast lamb sandwich with roast vegetables, or pork ramen with poached eggs, scallions, and spinach. So, that’s the what of what’s happening. What’s the why?

Because Minneapolis will destroy you—if you’re a world famous chef. I must say, I find it terrifically amusing that Minneapolis has now roundly rejected three superstar coastal chefs: We sent Marcus Samuelsson and the Minneapolis Aquavit packing, then rejected Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel (also replaced by a D’Amico restaurant) and now have ditched Wolfgang Puck. Minneapolis, we’re like the Russian steppes, where powerful armies come to die! Or maybe not. I still think Jean Georges and Aquavit in New York and the Beverly Hills Spago are great, stratospheric, phenomenal–but these underpowered local versions really stunk up the joint. And now they’re all gone! Who’s brave enough to come here now? Daniel? Ducasse? You are all fair-warned, Minneapolis is not sheep!

Okay, you want a more sophisticated take on this story? I can provide that too. There look to be two real reasons for the switch: One, curator Olga Viso had a vision for a more fluid, community-driven, real-world dining experience at the Walker—not a name-brand restaurant stapled onto a name-brand restaurant. “The dining scene has changed” in the five years since 20.21 opened, Viso told me. “Our visitors are looking for a more casual dining experience, and locally sourced foods. [The D’Amico’s] proposal focused on serving our visitors to the Walker much more broadly.” Broadly in terms of catering to different sized groups, different budgets, and being flexible in the catering to serve both casual and formal get togethers. The new restaurant, Gather, will primarily serve lunch, will be only open one night a week, on Thursdays, mirroring the only night the Walker itself is open, and on those Thursdays they hope to bring in visiting chefs from other restaurants—perhaps Doug Flicker from Piccolo will take a month of Thursdays, and perhaps Isaac Becker from Eatery 112 will too. Those names were suggested by Larry D’Amico, but I’ll add some thoughts of my own: Perhaps even out-state chefs like Scott Graden from the New Scenic Café, or George Wilkes from the Angry Trout Café, or chefs without restaurants, like the crew from Clancey’s butcher shop, or the Chef Shack’s Carrie Summers, or even food celebrities like Lynn Rosetto Casper, Rhagavan Iyer, or Andrew Zimmern? I think this could be spectacular fun, and it makes sense for the Walker as a way to bring new groups into the Walker on a regular basis.

In our brief conversation, Viso told me that a more fluid relationship with all sorts of communities is part of her vision for the Walker, and that’s why, among other things, they’re bringing back Music and Movies in the Park (partnering with The Current); it will be in its regular location for the first three Mondays in August, and on the fourth Monday in August it will be in the green space adjacent to the Walker, where Rock the Garden is. That green space also will hold Open Field, an outdoor “community mash-up” where there will be a series of planned events, like Thursday Drawing Club, and also space for you, you citizens you, to come and do what you like. Viso told me that one morning last year guerilla yogis showed up with 200 students for guerilla yoga!

So on the one hand, there’s the vision, community-driven, fluid, community serving thing. And on the other hand, there’s the money: As of today, D’Amico has a huge catering arm and a well networked staff of 15 salespeople who are busy placing corporate events, parties, and weddings every minute of every working day! They also have 1,200 or so employees who can cater any size event. By linking up with D’Amico the Walker stands to get a sizable increase in their event business. By having the restaurant closed six days a week, that prime main dining room with the beautiful view is suddenly available for private parties every night but Thursday–so if you want a wedding for 80, on a Saturday night, in a gorgeous space with covered, heated parking, and you want the chef to be anyone you can think of who says yes, well, life just got a lot more interesting.

To this critic, this move looks like a win-win-win. The Walker gets more money, diners get a more usable Walker Art Center, local chefs and foodies get a flexible venue the likes of which we’ve never had, and local brides get another option for dream weddings. Heck, this may even be a win for fine dining spots like La Belle Vie and Piccolo, as the fine dining herd is thinned a little. Speaking of fine dining, Larry D’Amico, who of course was part of white-tablecloth D’Amico Cucina for decades, takes a rather gimlet-eyed view of it all: “I always have this feeling that there’s only about 500 or 600 fine-dining diners in this town,” he told me. “And we share them with other restaurants. In New York there might be fifty or sixty thousand people who have flown in for dinner, but here it’s just the same 500 or 600 people moving around.”

This much is sure: They won’t be moving in and out of 20.21 much longer. 20.21 will close in mid-March, a light renovation will be supervised by the Walker’s design curator, and Gather will open in April or early May.

So what do you think? Yay or nay? And who would you put on a long-list of chefs you’d pay money to dine with on a Thursday night?
 

Posted on Friday, February 18, 2011 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Feb 18, 2011 11:42 am
 Posted by  Sammy

Woo Hoo! totally agree - sounds like wins all around!

Feb 18, 2011 11:44 am
 Posted by  Naomi W

Chef Patrick Atanalian!

Feb 18, 2011 01:03 pm
 Posted by  Mag

I like it! I was never really interested in trying 20.21 mostly due to the higher price tag of dining there. It seemed counter intuitive to cruise around the Walker for a small fee or free and then pay hefty coin for a meal there. Very interested to see how this turns out.

Feb 18, 2011 02:29 pm
 Posted by  Kimberly Hirsch

I couldn't agree more that this is a good move. I dined at 20.21 recently for the first time and was unpleasantly surprised at how much it cost for the quality of food delivered. As your original review said, you should get more than just OK at a restaurant like that. D'Amico, on the other hand, never disappoints. I have to say that I find their catering to be the best in Minneapolis - and for the price that you would pay for much lower quality food elsewhere.

Feb 18, 2011 05:31 pm
 Posted by  Emmysue

Any word on where Asher Miller will be going?

Feb 18, 2011 06:07 pm
 Posted by  judi48

I agree. I was very surprised and disappointed from day one that with all of the extrordinary Chef Talent in the Twin Cities, a local Chef was not chosen to drive a new concept.

I am happy to hear the suggestion of visiting Chefs and that out state Chefs should be considered too.

Lots of Good Chefs creating lots of good food around the state.

Feb 18, 2011 09:01 pm
 Posted by  Random commenter

Dara,

Now 20.21? Oh well, haven't been there in years. There sure seems to be a lot of weird drama in the high-end restaurant scene in the past year. Why is that?

I gotta be honest. When I read your posts about the Russo - Shefzilla p---ing match, or the McKee / Thoma controversies, or which spot D'Amico is now moving into, it all seemed a little "bad reality show," to me.

Worse, places like this, that seem so unsettled at a visible level (chef/owner) don't exactly inspire confidence as a diner. They don't make the top of my list anymore, because I wonder how committed they are to their daily work. If I was one of their employees, I might not be terribly excited either. A poor mix.

I sure hope the grown-ups get back in charge around here soon.

Feb 19, 2011 05:14 pm
 Posted by  Big German

"You are all fair-warned, Minneapolis is not sheep!"

Shouldn't it be "Minneapolis is not a sheep." or "Minneapolitans are not sheep." Any hoo.

Larry D'amico is correct about the same 500 - 600 fine diners running around town. They were/are accompanied by the special occasion provincial diners who felt/feel justifiably ripped off.

What do the D-amicos know about the local food schtick? Maybe more than I'd imagine, but from what I know they sit far outside the happy drum circle of buying local and hugging your farmer.
BTW I'd like to see the walk-in at the Walker on a Friday morning, after a Thursday night debacle. More power to them for sharing the dog bone (I guess). Theoretically the guest chefs will also bring some guest staff, or what you're likely to get is an uncoordinated disaster. In order to cook flexibly the cooks need to be exceptionally skilled. If they're banging out a fixed menu as a matter of practice (this is to be expected), than all you'll taste is loose execution and first night jitters......

Wolfgang Puck is owned by the same folks who brought you Cue at the Guthrie, Compass Food Management. The difference was that Wolfie actually knows how to run a fine dining restaurant, and the Bon Ape Mgt. boys are cafeteria jockeys. Lenny didn't have a prayer working under their team.

Asian Fusion, if that's what 20.21 was, never really made sense. Nor did Aquavit where the cafe food was more warmly received than the New York cutting edge stuff. Jean George's recipe driven gram scale retentiveness needed to be met with palates in the kitchen and common sense to match, and never was. In both these cases, face time in the kitchen is required, not mugging with expensively dressed customers. How well can you spin plates in two or more places at the same time half way across a continent? From personal experience, Spago Palo Alto royally sucked. Never ate in LA.

Feb 20, 2011 03:53 pm
 Posted by  michelleoptsuion

I read a lot of your reviews since you were with City Pages. The one that particularly struck me was when you wrote about Singapore Restaurant in Maplewood how you like the curry by Chef Kin Lee..all those musical instruments blended in and all the wonderful spices created by him........

Since your article written about this restaurant I was a regular at this place. And they moved to Minneapolis. And Chef Kin Lee was gone.

Recently I discovered what I have eaten at this tiny mall in Bloomington (Town & Country Mall) and I can tell that it was so familiar a taste that the curry was so familiar unlike all Indian curries They called it Malaysian Curry when I asked the waitress. So I went next door
(given the hint that was cooked by a chef there) and ordered Chow Mein. I know now Kin Lee is cooking there now. He offered me some seserts. I like it. I know where to eat his roti now.

Feb 22, 2011 10:19 am
 Posted by  Dara

Thanks, everyone. My guess is that the guest chefs are more like guest menu designers who supervise and correct execution, not folks suddenly manning a strange line, which would be pretty normal, other restaurants host visiting chefs fairly routinely, for Beard events and whatnot, like when chef Susur Lee came to La Belle Vie. A well trained, well supported kitchen staff can do just about anything they want, but, uh, they can also not do whatever they want. Devil is in the detail.

Some clarifications: Those 1,200 D'Amico employees are across all branches of the company, restaurant and catering, not purely in catering, and the two-dozen restaurants refers to D'Amico and Sons establishments in all locations, including inside some Super Targets, inside the General Mills headquarters, and so forth.

And Michelle: Thanks for the tip about Kin Lee! I'm going to get there as soon as I can. Which today means as soon as the plow gets to my snowy, snowy street...

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