Fine dining for less

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March 15, 2010
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
I’m dining in a chi-chi downtown café — white tablecloths, flowers, candles, servers in black tie. I’m enjoying duck breast with celery-root shiitake ragu. And I’m enjoying it all the more because I’m paying only $7 and change.

No, this isn’t a misprint: This is where to look like a hero when it’s your turn to pop for lunch. But if duck breast is your idea of fey food, fine: Go for the sirloin in red-wine demiglace, which — gulp! — sells for even less. Or the big ole burger, loaded with all the trappings, including housemade bun and fries so tender you risk arrest for merely glancing in their direction. It’s the most popular item on the menu at Gourmet Gallery, aka, the dining lab.

Here, culinary students, in their final rotation of Art Institutes International Minnesota, prepare and serve lunch Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m.–1 p.m, announcing daily specials (they’ve studied public speaking), presenting and clearing plates, and — real-life trauma — cooking to order as the clock races on. Menus reflect the classes they’ve mastered, from baking and cake decorating to Asian, International and American Regional cooking.

Thus, my Nuevo-Cal salad of roasted beets is followed by momo — Tibetan dumplings. And a creamy-beyond-belief New England chowder gave way to house-made pork sausages with a German accent, accompanied by braised cabbage, rosti potatoes and caraway gravy.

Putting ordinary dim sum to shame, the queen-size momo (4/$5) noodle bundles burst with chicken turned savory with scallions and cilantro, served with a sassy tomato-chili dip. And what the beet plate lacked in color (a lot), it made up for in flavor, for each burly wedge was laced with a peppercorn vinaigrette dancing with chopped pistachios, under bonnets of creamy goat-cheese. But arid, brown croutons? No thanks; people dine with their eyes: Try some wild and spiky greens.

The duck proved savory and the burger brawny with beefy flavor, but the winner was the pork in adobo. Long-braised pulled pork, in mounds the size of my sidewalk’s snowbank, shimmered with a rich, smoky-spicy sauce. (Says Director Mike Autenrienth, seasonings in the dining lab are authentic, not airbrushed for pallid palates.) Riding a heap of pleasantly sticky rice, the whole enchilada (so to speak) came garnished with corn tortillas, ripe-and-ready avocado, and a shower of crème fraiche — chances are, the best $7 you’ll spend all week.

But wait, as they say on late-night TV, there’s more! When’s the last time you met a homemade dessert for $3.50? And they aren’t tiny. Finish the carrot cake, with its ultra-decorated cream cheese frosting, and there’s probably an Olympic medal in the wings. Same for the apple crepe. And the toasted banana bread, served with caramel sauce and banana whipped cream. My own choice was clearly evil, dark as the Gates of Hell and rich as Gates himself: a chocolate croissant bread pudding, complete with an elite crème anglaise and a perfect mastery of how to whip cream.

Gourmet Gallery
15 S. 9th St.
M–W, 11 a.m.–1 p.m.
Menu can be viewed at