Food Meets Beer Finds Plenty to Love at the Gray House
By Jason Walker, The Heavy Table
Photos by Jamie Schumacher
Local diners know both food and beer, and if up-and-comers like Gray don’t deliver on both accounts, it’s splitsville.
Growing up in a booming beer city can do a lot for a young chef.
At 28, Ian Gray, chef and owner of newly opened LynLake gastropub The Gray House, already puts out a killer menu. From housemade cheese crackers to savory entrees, tempting tartares and toothsome desserts, it’s obvious the guy knows food.
But he also knows that it’s not enough to have a great menu. To truly succeed in the gastronome’s paradise that the Twin Cities are becoming, a taut, well-crafted beer list must be available that admirably complements the food. Local diners know both food and beer, and if up-and-comers like Gray don’t deliver on both accounts, it’s splitsville.
Not to worry. When I visited The Gray House early this month, it was clear after a few bites and sips that Gray and bar manager Kevin Goodman have it under control. Case in point: our first pairing, a tuna tartare with lemongrass vinaigrette, fresh ground cherries and celery root alongside Epic Brainless on Peaches, a Belgian-style ale aged with peach puree in wine casks. The peach aroma is immediately soothing, and its succulent, juicy profile mingles beautifully with the fattiness of the tuna. It’s savory and sweet in all the right places, particularly thanks to the thump of the sour cherries.
“Using the cherries in this dish is a good example of our concept,” Gray said. “We use chalkboard menus so we can cook with what’s coming up at the farmers markets, and then try to really work with the seasonal beers. The seasonals are the pride and joy of the brewer.”
Fruit beers and Belgians often carry at least some citrus overtones, but not here. That’s why it pairs well with the lemongrass and ground cherries in the tuna – it’s snappy and pleasant, and absolutely refreshing.
“You get the sweet from the beer and the savory from the tartare, then the lemongrass fuses it all together and functions as the binding agent,” Goodman said. “There’s the stuff brewers do to pay the bills, and then Brainless on Peaches is the stuff they do for the love of the game.”
Another satisfier was Gray’s pressed chicken, a dish he originally created during his last job as chef at Trattoria Tosca. Rubbed with garlic, shallots and red pepper flakes and served with pan sauce, the chicken went perfect with a lighter choice, Minnetonka’s Lucid Air. Here, the pan-fried chicken burst with every bit of flavor it could muster, and the spices provided just enough of a tangy kick to make it sing. Its simple elegance of essentially fried chicken with gravy was half grandma’s cast-iron skillet, half Julia Child.
“When the skin is just right and the veggies are there, the pan sauce is just bread-worthy,” Gray said.
Which is why the Air is a good choice. Lucid’s American pale wheat ale doesn’t need to stand up to the juicy chicken, it needs to refresh and provide more desire for another bite. The Air is an all-day drinker, “a good beer-flavored beer,” as Goodman put it, and was a great way to enhance, not overpower, the subtle spices in the dish.
“A good pairing comes from that balance between heavy and light, those notes of what the beer and the dish actually are,” Gray said. “You don’t want sweet with sweet. And then really think about what’s going on with seasonal beers and what foods are available in the seasons.”
The Gray House’s six taps will focus on up-and-coming local beers, and there will be a lengthy bottle selection.
Goodman, the bar manager, said he and Gray held a lot of meetings to discuss what beers would properly complement Gray’s food. Goodman said he looked for round, full-bodied beers that had a balanced mix of flavors: not too hoppy, not too malty. And as a longtime friend of Gray and having eaten his cooking for years, Goodman was ready to dive right in.
“Since he brought the Gray House idea to me, I’ve been thinking about pairings so much, I’ve even been trying to figure out what the best beer would be to go along with the mac and cheese I just made. It’s just been a game-changer in my brain.
“As a bartender, you’re always going to get the guy who always drinks the crappy American beer; well, we don’t have any of those. We have so much more going on, we want to open people’s minds a little bit. We want you to get more out of this than just a burger and a beer, and at the same time you don’t have to pay that much for it.”
Killer Pairing #1
Ham hock ravioli with fig port reduction, bleu cheese butter and pickled red onions, paired with Badger Hill Three Tree Rye.
Another dish from Gray’s time at Trattoria Tosca, the well-textured ravioli and smoky hocks need a beer that can stand up on its own. Badger Hill’s Rye does the trick, as its plentiful malts and balanced hops give the dish a potent companion. Yet the ale isn’t overly alcoholic at 5.2 percent ABV, so you can enjoy plenty of flavor without getting knocked over if you have a couple.
The ravioli is complemented with a sauce of red onions, cinnamon, figs and ham hock stock. It’s pretty unique, and for all its pedigree, not overpowering.
“I got the ham hock idea when I was at Cafe Lurcat, where they did a ham hock glaze but threw the ham hocks away,” Gray said. “So once I got to Tosca and remembered those hocks, I was like, ‘That’s a dish!’ They’re smoked right over the state line in Wisconsin, then we braise them with parmesan rinds, chilies, tomatoes, carrots and chicken stock just to give it a little more support.”
Gray plans one fresh pasta and one ravioli every day, and all will be made in-house.
Killer Pairing #2
Banoffee pie paired with Lucky Bucket Certified Evil
The restaurant is inspired partly by Gray’s wife, Katie, and several trips they’ve made to Britain to re-visit her heritage. Given that focus, plus a dedication to British-style easy-drinking beers, the banoffee pie fits right in.
“This is the closest to an English dish we have,” Gray said. “It’s more modern and with an Indian influence – ours has banana, toffee, condensed milk, house-made pastry shell, with caramelized bananas in butter and brown sugar with goat’s yogurt and a little mint. The goat’s yogurt makes it really tangy, and that pungency melts right into the banana.”
The dessert illuminates the natural sweetness of the banana, and it really works well with the espresso notes of the Certified Evil, a hoppy, dark Belgian-style ale from Nebraska’s Lucky Bucket Brewing. With hints of raisin and molasses in the beer, as well as the toffee and tang of the pie, the pairing really blurs the line between drinking and eating. The flavor notes just melt together.
“When I first had this beer, before I even had heard of banoffee pie, Kurt (Welshinger, Gray House employee) tasted the beer and was like, ‘Banofee pie would work with this,’” Gray said. “It goes so well with the coffee and malt on your palate.”
“The beer is really malty on its own,” Goodman said, “but paired with the banana and cream the hops shine through.”