Then comes the big question: How exactly does it work? Aah … that’s tricky.
If you’ve read anything about this first solo venture from the famous “Top Chef” finalist, you’ve heard the dining format veers from tradition. Citing dim sum parlors and Brazilian churrascarias as inspiration, Gillespie has decided to take the process of ordering out of the equation.
The paper menu listing about 15 dishes serves only as a reference tool or cheat sheet. Chefs prepare several small-plate portions of each dish at a time and then personally haul them out on a wooden service tray for you to choose or refuse.
They don’t have far to go. The kitchen, set up along one wall, opens to the dining room without any barrier. So close is the action that you might find yourself cracking open the walk-in refrigerator door as you search for the restroom.
As radical as all this sounds, Gillespie is far from the first chef to question the whole appetizer, entree, dessert orthodoxy. Nor is he the only restaurateur trying to smash down the Berlin Wall between the dining room and kitchen. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco wheels dim sum carts loaded with iced oysters and other goodies through the dining room. The kitchen at the Spence in Midtown juts so far into the dining room you can feel the oven heat. And the hugely influential Danish restaurant Noma popularized the notion of chefs hand delivering dishes they just created. After all, who better to describe them?
Gillespie admitted that service at Gunshow is a work in progress and that he had “already changed six things” between the time I visited the restaurant and called him a few days later.
“Did you notice how bright the lights were?” Gillespie asked. (I did.) “That’s because we really wanted it to feel like a workshop. Well, we’ve heard from customers that it was too bright, so we’ve added dimmers.” (Good move.)
Gillespie is also rethinking the Steampunk tables — metal slabs and risers bolted together with bulky C clamps that some guests complained were digging into their laps. The simple beverage program (just wine and beer) will be fleshed out with a few more upmarket offerings. More prime-time reservation slots will go on the books. As it turns out, when customers don’t spend a lot of time reading menus and waiting for their orders, they tend to eat and skedaddle faster.
He also acknowledged the “double-edged sword” of an ordering system that solves some problems for diners but creates others. Some guests have complained they wanted to try a certain dish but were full by the time it finally appeared tableside. A few diners — presumably the steak-and-potato set — passed on everything.
“This model doesn’t work if people keep saying no to things because they’re scared,” Gillespie sighed.
But for diners who go to restaurants with open minds — those who go to see what good things come their way — this new-style dining holds plenty of possibility. If you plan to visit Gunshow, consider these nine observations about the experience. …
1. There’s no bar, though you can sit and wait for your party in a cordoned-off area that makes you feel a bit like you’re waiting for the 8:20 train to Hoboken. Someone will offer you a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.
2. The beverage program is pretty basic. Then again, you can get a perfectly nice, food-friendly drink for a decent price. If you’re a wine geek and want something special with this food, you might consider bringing a bottle from home. Gunshow doesn’t charge any corkage.
3. Here comes the cart: After you sit down, a server will roll over a Queen Mary cart with an assortment of very small plates — perhaps fried boudin balls or some cubes of house pâté. These are the “assorted savory, spicy, crispy and crunchy” snacks meant to appease your appetite and bridge your expectations as you sync to the timing of the kitchen. Eating here is a bit like hopping onto a moving treadmill. It energizes you once you get the pace.
4. Go with the flow: The dishes you were eyeing on the menu may not be the first to arrive, but they eventually will show up. Perhaps a few items, such as Gillespie’s smoked-to-order heritage pork with German potato salad, show up less frequently than his creamed butterbeans with chicken skin cracklin’ cornbread, but you want both.
You also must take a Zen approach and let the meal happen as serendipity dictates. We were most interested in the trout a la plancha with shaved asparagus and brown butter, but when it arrived at the end of the meal after we had eaten the pork as well as braised short rib with lemon spaetzle and stroganoff-style mushrooms, we had to pass. Next time.
5. But if you really want something, ask. The server will alert the kitchen to make your table the first stop when that dish comes out of the kitchen.
6. There are three chefs, not one: Gillespie is ably abetted by Joseph Ward and Andreas Müller, both of whom you will meet as they offer their creations tableside.
Ward is the modernist of the bunch, so look for his colorful plates. We went nuts for his spring vegetable salad served with a creamy ramp dressing (“rampch”) and yellow lemon-fennel-olive oil powder meant to evoke tree pollen.
Müller claims responsibility for Gunshow’s biggest talker — a version of the Swedish street food called tunnbrodsrulle. It’s a flatbread filled with mashed potato, a creamy shrimp-dill sauce and a hotdog. It seems like the kind of thing you might want to eat standing in the street after a few too many beers, with perhaps a wad of napkins and a plastic fork, leaning forward to keep it from dripping on your coat.
There’s also a fried chicken sandwich making the rounds. Gillespie insists he wants the restaurant to appeal to folks who just want a sandwich or a snack to go with a beer.
7. The menu changes all the time, so the dishes I describe here may be gone when you visit. That said, you really want the “pork skin risotto” — actually a rich bowl of farro with the inimitable flavor of smoked, rendered and powdered porcine epidermis.
8. This restaurant isn’t cheap: The small plates range from $10 to $18, and you’ll want about three per person. We had three per, a couple of the snacks, and a couple of small desserts, and we all left exclaiming how nice it was not to be stuffed. I may have raided some leftovers in the fridge later that evening.
9. “Home” is the key word. When I’ve interviewed Gillespie, he has told me umpteen times, “I want you to feel like you’re in my home.” This isn’t just an expression of bland hospitality. Like in a home, the food arrives as it arrives. Sometimes you stand around in the kitchen for too long eating nuts and trying not to get drunk as the host cooks. Sometimes it piles up and you merrily overeat. Some dishes may not be your thing, but it shows up at the table and you decide to dig in. I’m glad I’ve tried tunnbrodsrulle, but I don’t imagine anything short of a Stockholm bender will encourage me to try another.
So there you have it, Gunshow in a nutshell. This primer may leave you with the question that everyone asks about this convention-bending restaurant. Is it a grand experiment by a chef who has enough fame and popularity to do what he wants? Or is it a sign of things to come?
Me, I’m banking on the latter. Gunshow surely will make an overhaul or six as it works out this dance of appetite and expectation, of anticipation and satiety, and of commerce and hospitality.
But if you’ve ever been in another restaurant and devoured a bread basket while waiting for your meal, overfilled on an appetizer before your entree arrived, or found a dish distressingly unlike its menu description, you’ll appreciate the intent here. Chefs like Gillespie make this an exciting time to dine out.