Hotel Haute

The Chambers Kitchen scored big when it hired a celebrity chef. But did he check out too soon?

Click here to watch a video tour of Chambers Kitchen.

At the opening gala for the new Chambers hotel, bar, and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, spry silver-haired men danced with women half their age as an earnest cover-band hammered out a Santana song. The rest of us loitered in the courtyard, warming our hands by the outdoor fire pits and admiring the sculpture of a one-armed gorilla, whose lost appendage lies inexplicably beside him in the grass. We popped caviar purses into our mouths—salty black eggs gathered up in wonton skins, their edges flecked with gold. Yes, they served gold at the Chambers Hotel. And sent guests home with handcuffs. The city, it seemed, would never be the same.

Minnesota culture is stereotypically modest, sans glitz and velvet ropes. But that doesn’t mean some of us aren’t looking for excuses to ditch the Dockers and put on the Prada, or at least the little black dress we picked up at Target. The Chambers’s owner, real-estate mogul Ralph Burnet, understood this when he bought the former Fairmont flophouse and transmogrified it into a chic boutique hotel with an art gallery, a lounge, a restaurant branded by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and enough sophistication to ward off the frat boys and bachelorette parties roaming the north end of downtown.

The building looks fantastic, inside and out, from the rusty patina of the exterior to the Scandinavian-style seating. It’s a perfect showcase for Ralph and Peggy Burnet’s acclaimed art collection, which mostly features the hot genre of YBAs, or “Young British Artists.” The giant ’80s rocker wig made from kitchen utensils, the bull’s head suspended in formaldehyde, the eerily realistic silicone bust, and the neon script spelling out the f-word, are certainly conversation starters.

Seared tuna coated with puffed
rice – Photo by Terry Brennan

While the art is unique, the restaurant is something we’ve seen before. The French-born, New York—based Vongerichten, considered one of the world’s top chefs, has established dozens of restaurants around the globe. They’re almost fine-dining franchises: Vongerichten creates the menu and launches the place, then relies on a team of chefs to carry out his vision.

Vongerichten spent a couple weeks opening his Minneapolis outpost, Chambers Kitchen, overseeing cuisine for the sparkling white main-floor dining area and dark, sexy rathskeller. And after his departure, young leggy hostesses with skirts as short as their resumés have been leading diners to a decidedly mixed menu: a few culinary clunkers among many moments of greatness.

Vongerichten is a master of the French-Asian flavors he’s been fusing since the ’80s, and his duck a l’orange—with Asian pear, kohlrabi purée, and tiny bits of sour crystallized ginger—reflects this depth of experience beautifully. The Asian-influenced fish dishes are similarly well-conceived. The black bass entrée is encrusted in a mixture of pulverized nuts, seeds, and spices, and presented in a lively sweet-sour mushroom broth laced with hints of soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar, and rich brown butter. And Vongerichten’s seared tuna appetizer is an innovation on sushi I’ve taken to calling Maki 2.0, combining luscious pink fish with puffed rice crackers to create a playful balance between chewiness and nutty crunch. Its accompanying tart/hot citrus siracha emulsion is my new favorite condiment: I could eat it on anything from filet mignon to corn dogs. The kitchen also does admirable work with Minnesota’s beloved walleye, frying the fish in Vongerichten’s famously light tempura batter, and serving it with basil, jalapeño, a fermented black bean remoulade, and deep-fried crumbs of garlic, ginger, and pungent black beans.

A lemonlicious tart –
Photo by Terry Brennan

Other familiar items we tried were disappointing, however. The tomato-basil shrimp pasta and BLT were patently dull, no more inventive or tasty for their big-name pedigree. The riff on Caprese salad accented a bold-flavored homemade mozzarella with flecks of sea salt and a citrus-olive-oil broth (Vongerichten is known for his broths, and this one was good enough to drink from the bowl), but its mealy, late-season tomatoes weren’t nearly as juicy as the Green Zebras available that week at the farmers’ market.

Occasionally, Vongerichten takes his Asian fixation too far, especially when it sideswipes into Italy. The cheddar polenta accompanying the glazed short-rib entrée was a structural wonder, wrapped like a spring roll and fried to crisp the crust and liquefy the center, but the cheese was overwhelmed by an off-putting orange zest. And the raw tuna appetizer pizza was anything but appetizing: topped with pickled young ginger, wasabi “cheese,” and a sort of carrot/daikon radish slaw, it was a mushy, soggy mess.

But the consistently good dessert list, executed by a pastry chef transplanted from Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant in New York, sweetened any sour thoughts. Just when we thought the lemon tart with crushed raspberry and lemongrass ice cream couldn’t be topped by the passion-fruit soufflé, both were trumped by a delicate crème fraîche cheesecake. The accompanying grape sorbet and red-wine-poached figs gave it a one-two punch that was simultaneously nostalgic and mature.

Unfortunately, the hometown talent filling the service positions couldn’t always keep pace. Some nitpicks, admittedly, were the result of the restaurant’s design: a table directly beneath an arctic draft, curved-rim china that sent flatware flying as plates were cleared, the lack of downstairs restrooms obliging an uncomfortable personal escort upstairs. But other annoyances, like the unnecessary refilling of water glasses after every sip, were simply awkward efforts to please.

The Chambers Kitchen is still getting its footing. With any luck, the kitchen and wait staff will soon rise to the expectations that go with having a four-star chef and an avant-garde space. Still, Vongerichten added Minneapolis on his London-Paris-Shanghai roster for a reason: he saw, in us, potential. In a few short months, the Chambers has already become a nexus of ad execs, PR powerhouses, and British rockers with unwashed hair and skinny jeans. This once-seedy hotel, recently the setting for a film about writer/poet Charles Bukowski, could now be the backdrop for a commercial advertising our cultural capital. It inspires us to believe that with a little artistry, everything is possible, that anything we touch might turn itself to gold. Edible gold, that is.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

Chambers Kitchen
901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612-767-6999

Open –
Sunday through Thursday 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Reservations recommended. Parking via valet on Ninth Street or nearby ramps and meters.