Judging by Gunther & Co.'s (3650 Toone St.,  869-6874, eatgunther.com) Instagram account, there are three things people already love about the three-month-old Brewer's Hill restaurant: cleverly named cocktails (a Meet the Beet-alls or a Rye'n Gosling, anyone?), oysters all ways, and the 16-foot high, staggeringly lush living wall of plants that anchors the east end of the equally dramatic dining room like a textured wallpaper gone au naturel.
It really is nearly impossible to talk about Gunther & Co. without talking about the dramatic renovation of what was once the Gunther Brewery (previously covered in this paper). In a nutshell, owners Jerry Trice, who is also executive chef, and Nancy Hart, also director of operations, fell in love with the historic site, which had stood vacant since the late 1970's. Over the course of nine months, they re-imagined 7,600 square feet of space, creating a raw bar and banquettes, an open kitchen that stretches on forever, private dining on the mezzanine level, and the living wall. Décor-wise, it's a post-industrial, east-side second cousin to Cosima or Woodberry Kitchen.
Menu-wise, Gunther & Co.'s scope is broader than either of those restaurants, roughly adhering to seasonality, but not beholden to strictly local offerings. The result is a poker hand's worth of menus, which can be a little bewildering when they're laid out on the table before you. One sheet is a wine list, which admirably ranges across appellations and price points. Another sheet, lists small plates and sandwiches on one side and cocktails on the opposite. The final sheet is the dinner menu, a slightly more formal array of appetizers and entrees with by the glass beer and wine offerings on its opposite side.
Ultimately, though, the passing confusion is worth it, given the range of dishes. A heady cloud of aromatics rises from the earthenware dish of wood oven roasted oysters ($13). Balanced on a bed of fennel stems and fronds, the oysters become little velvety, briny pillows poised to explode with one bite. Heat also brings out both the flavor and the sweetness of ripe peaches (dubbed Peaches-N-Herbs, $12), grilled so the edges are caramelized and dressed with saba, pistachios, and a sprinkle of basil and dill. A garnish of blue-cheddar adds a welcome savory to the sweet, and the kitchen riffs on the same concept in the feta and watermelon salad ($13), where prosciutto and almonds turn summer's favorite picnic fruit into the star of a sophisticated mixture of salty and sweet, crunch and silky fat.
Balance is also the key to a plate of tea-smoked duck breast ($26)—all subtle smokiness, with just the right amount of earthiness from the addition of olives and crispy-edged grilled oyster mushrooms. The portion is generous, as is the kitchen's robust version of steak frites ($28), served with mounds of garlicky Swiss chard and excellent fries. It is a surprise then, that the Thai seafood hot pot ($25) should leave me wanting more, both because the coconut curry broth is addictive and because a few more mussels or a larger piece of rockfish would not go amiss.
If there is one drawback to Gunther & Co.—and it's a biggie—it's service. Despite a warm and almost courtly welcome by host, the rest of the evening, service-wise, was a struggle. More than once our server wandered off, creating long, empty stretches of waiting to place an order for drinks, waiting for the drinks themselves, and waiting for appetizers and entrees. At several points, a different server checked in with us and facilitated our order, while our original server sauntered over a while later with no explanation of the turtle's pace of the meal. Perhaps the most surprising incident came duringdessert, when several of us questioned the freshness of the whipped crème fraiche accompanying an otherwise lovely chocolate pave ($8). Crème fraiche is normally rich and slightly tart, but this tasted metallic, fizzy, and off. There was no bone to pick; no dessert to send back. We impressed that we did not want the charge to be removed from the menu. No one felt ill. But we did ask the server to check with the kitchen to make sure the garnish was what it was supposed to be, so that in case it was not right, the kitchen would know. Instead, he resisted with a long list of explanations. At the end of a very long evening (just over two hours from start to finish), this was not the diplomatic response.
In an old jingle, Gunther Beer touted itself as "the happiest tasting beer today." That the old brewery is once again putting out a tasty product is a real treat. With a few tweaks, you could find real happiness there.
Gunther & Co. is open for lunch, dinner, and late-night dining Monday-Saturday; and for brunch and supper on Sunday.