One of Spokane's favorite restaurants, Gander & Ryegrass’, now features an evolving chef’s choice menu, which invites guests to sit back and let the master chefs guide them through a dining experience unlike anything you've seen before.
When it comes to most things in life, we don’t want others to decide for us.
But if we’re talking about the “Chef’s Marathon” dinner at Gander & Ryegrass, diners should gladly cede all freedom of choice to chef Peter Froese and his culinary team.
During one of my own visits, for example, I was utterly delighted by the quaintness of a tiny, lidded casserole dish served as part of a flight of appetizers. Inside, a few spoonfuls of pea and duck cassoulet. The presentation was so charming it nearly overwhelmed my appreciation of the carefully crafted dish within.
Offered since Froese opened the downtown Spokane fine-dining restaurant in late 2019, Gander & Ryegrass’ multi-course meal consists of between 10 and 15 total dishes of varying portion sizes on any given night. None of these dishes are listed on the menu. Instead, diners enter into an agreement with the kitchen to continuously send food to their table throughout the two-hour-or-so meal.
“I think that’s a little bit of the challenge that we’ve slowly been overcoming, the sense of ‘What? How are you just gonna feed me and I don’t know what it is?’” Froese says while taking a break to chat with me between lunch and dinner service on a recent Friday afternoon.
He anticipates it’ll be a busy night, as it usually is on weekends. An hour before dinner begins at 5 pm, there are eight cooks in the kitchen prepping for the night: cutting veggies, making sauces, prepping their stations.
“I think we got a lot more pushback early on,” Froese continues. “There are a lot more people settling into the marathons, and they are like, ‘Yep. Cool. I don’t even want to think about it.’”
If you’ve never experienced a chef’s choice meal before, the thought of leaving all decision-making up to the chef may be intimidating. But even selective eaters can rest assured that the culinary journey they’re about to embark on at Gander & Ryegrass will be full of surprises, delights and even familiar sensations.
Take it from me. Since initially trying the marathon in early 2020 for my birthday, it’s now tradition for my partner, Will, and I to treat each other for the occasion.
Froese’s dining marathon has caught on with other diners, too, and he estimates between 60 and 70 percent of all diners on weekends come to Gander & Ryegrass solely for the experience.
He hopes even more diners come to embrace the concept so that his team can direct most of their focus there, resulting in more creative freedom to change the menu on a whim while also giving diners a reason to return more often.
Gander & Ryegrass’ Chef’s Marathon menu is currently priced at $107 per person, with the option to add wine pairings for $65 more, or $104 more with the expert guidance of its sommelier team. For diners seeking a lighter option, both in quantity and price, the restaurant also offers a three-course meal — with a few bites in between — for $75 per person, and with optional wine pairings for $50 more.
Diners are given their choice of the Chef’s Marathon or three-course dinner menu (the latter has two or three options per course) as they’re seated for dinner. At this point, the server also explains any optional upgrades or nightly specials.
Reservations for the marathon are not required, but Froese encourages them, especially for those with dietary requests that may depart from what he’s planned. Additionally, all guests in the group must participate in the marathon.
“If we know you’re a vegan coming in, even with an hour’s notice, that totally changes everything,” Froese says. “I love eating things with butter and meat and cheese and all that, but we also really love vegetables, and we spend a fair amount of time locating good vegetables.”
To kick off the marathon, the kitchen sends out four to six amuse bouche “bites” to warm up the palate. Some are very small, like a wine cork-sized slice of fingerling potato topped with salmon roe and a creamy sauce, garnished with a tiny pea shoot. Or a smear of duck liver pate between two tiny circular cutouts of soft, crustless white bread, topped with sweet jam, Froese’s elevation of the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“One of my mentors said, ‘Food should be delicious, it should be beautiful, and it should be fun,’” he says.
A few larger portions begin appearing next, each perfectly timed with the intent that diners can slowly savor and enjoy, and even reflect about it — each bite, ingredient, texture and flavor — among themselves before the next plate comes out. Each dish is complex yet nuanced, and I often feel compelled to take handwritten notes — and definitely photos, which Froese says are always welcome — to record what the server tells me I’m eating lest I forget.
For these early courses, Froese likes to start with a few vegetable-forward dishes, which arrive before the middle of the meal: a bowl of house-made pasta to be shared by the table, like his unctuous pork-shoulder ragout in ribbon-like tagliatelle noodles. House-baked bread and infused butter accompanies the pasta.
Before the “main” entree, usually a turf-based protein like steak, duck, pork or chicken, is a chilled cup of tart and icy housemade sorbet to refresh the palate.
What’s served for each iteration of the marathon
varies by season and availability, as Froese and his team seek to highlight what’s regionally freshest. This summer, for example, oil-poached tuna with heirloom tomatoes was a menu standout, crafted by one of the restaurant’s sous chefs, Wyatt Campbell.
“We have a lot of conversations about how dishes get built,” Froese says. “I love that. And I want people to be able to cook their food within our [restaurant’s] parameters. I think that’s really important. You get the best of people when they’re shooting after what they’re excited about.”