“They’re ready for you in the dining room.”
Those eight words — accompanied by the dramatic parting of a heavy velvet curtain — kicked off the most smoothly professional dining experience I’ve encountered in Minnesota.
Welcome to Demi, the tasting-menu restaurant from Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of nearby Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Bellecour in Wayzata. The 20-seat North Loop restaurant is accessed through a prepaid reservation and serves a maximum of 40 diners per evening, five nights a week.
That it is superb, from start to finish, is no surprise. Kaysen returned to his hometown five years ago after a long and fruitful tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City, and his arrival has transformed the Twin Cities dining scene. (He started his restaurant career 24 years ago at a Subway in Bloomington.) Demi is Kaysen at his most refined, his most experimental and his most exciting.
As good a cook as Kaysen is — the foundations of his French culinary skills are set in bedrock — he also has a gift for discovering and nurturing culinary talent. Demi is a hub of skill, enthusiasm and ambition. It’s a thrill to watch those qualities play out in front of you, in real time, as the crew, working with quiet industry, prepares each course a few feet from your perch, and then serves it, often applying finishing flourishes tableside. Correction, counterside, as diners gather around a three-sided bar.
The evening commences with a broth, poured into earthen vessels. The steam acts as a kind of tactile salutation.
“The word ‘restaurant’ is derived from the word ‘restoration,’ ” said Kaysen. “We want to have the guest immediately start to think that this is an experience that’s going to take time. It’s a beautiful feeling to hand someone a cup or a bowl and have them sip from it. That’s automatically telling people that this is going to be different.”
This is no ordinary consommé. At one visit, the broth was built from oven-steamed onions and poured over a kernel of aged beef fat, with the latter gently coating the lips. At another, spring’s long awaited arrival was heralded with just harvested peas and mint, with a flash of bacon sneaking into each sip.
From there, out comes an array of ingenious one- and two-bite canapés: pretty turnip tarts with hints of maple and a tiara of tiny trout roe, or a tender rabbit meatball served with a sabayon that’s laced with a malt vinegar fashioned from the wort of a local brewery.
The kitchen’s larder is stocked with locally produced ingredients, many of them culled from chef de cuisine Adam Ritter’s farm near St. Cloud, everything from pickled elderflower berries and birch syrup to spruce-tip-infused vinegar, nettles in a mustard and pickled crabapples. Oh, and sumac that shimmers in a glorious venison tartare. Even the skewer on that rabbit meatball came from the farm, a slice of burdock root.
At this revelatory restaurant, gimmickry is present, but subdued. Yes, that’s a small terrarium-like serving piece, complete with moss. Sure, that’s a cloud of liquid nitrogen floating across the counter. It’s playful, but not overdone; the discipline is palpable.
A taste of Minnesota
Kaysen and his crew have the seasons timed with a stopwatch; witness the first appearance of fiddlehead ferns and asparagus, beautifully paired with gently smoked trout.
There’s also a spot-on sense of place. The Minnesota church-basement Jell-O fruit salad was inspiration for an ingenious foie gras treatment. A dome of translucent apple cider gelatin encased a supple torchon, with compressed and pickled apples as decoration and hickory nuts adding a just right crunchy element. It was served with a dreamy cloverleaf-shaped brioche roll, still warm and brushed with butter. I could have eaten a dozen.
While it’s not on the menu, storytelling is a key Demi component. Kaysen reached his narrative apex while affectionately recalling a 2006 dinner with mentor Paul Bocuse, when the legendary French chef prepared a decadent hare dish. For Minnesotans, Kaysen’s version places octopus in the spotlight, coaxing it into a firm but malleable texture and inserting oomph in the form of bacon.
The pièce de résistance? An intense sauce fashioned from reduced pork blood, fortified with cooked wild rice (“our Minnesota trick,” Kaysen said with a laugh) and finished with butter and pops of red currant vinegar. For a vehicle to sop up every molecule of that velvety, unctuous sauce, the ever thoughtful Kaysen provided a soft Chinese steamed bun.
The final savory course was an intensely flavorful fat-laced rectangle of the 1 percent’s version of beef, a Wagyu-style sourced from an Iowa farming cooperative. The sublime texture suggested a careful sous-vide process, but in reality it was cooked over a tiny charcoal grill until the exterior was charred and caramelized but the interior remained cool and juicy.
The over-the-top beef was paired with restrained touches. A splash of mustard cut the beef’s pronounced richness. Instead of going the pasta route, Ritter ingeniously accentuated the flavors of butternut squash by manipulating a thin shaving into a ravioli and filling it with a purée of the same squash. Brilliant, and so delicious.
The long progression into dessert begins with another broth. A tea, actually, perfumed with sweet — but hardly sugary — elements: elderflower, dandelion root, sage.
“This is our way to say, ‘The savory is over, and sweet will begin,’ ” Kaysen said.
Then Diane Moua, the Twin Cities’ leading pastry chef, steps in. She and her team forge a pair of desserts that are quintessential Moua, provocative flurries of contrasting flavors, textures, colors and temperatures.
That’s followed by a selection of a half-dozen pretty, mood-enhancing confections, each executed with precision and utterly tempting. Don’t be shy; try as many as your appetite allows. But know this: Don’t miss the sesame balls, where Moua demonstrates her sure-footed dexterity on a tightrope tethered between spongy and ethereal.
The capper arrives in the form of a copper Mauviel saucepan, filled with still warm Rice Krispies Treats.
“It’s my favorite guilty pleasure,” said Kaysen. “We want people to leave on a laugh, and there are certain things that are rooted in nostalgia. We take ourselves seriously, but we don’t want to forget that the whole point is to have fun.”
Dinner as theater
The restaurant has almost zero street presence. A small vestibule is a venue for shedding and storing outerwear and, if it’s part of your prepaid package, enjoying a quick pre-dinner libation. Then that curtain opens.
The cube-shaped dining room’s understated looks are a collaboration between Shea Design and Kaysen’s spouse, Linda Kaysen, and every design decision seems to underscore the restaurant’s theatrical aspirations.
A front-and-center cooking station (capped in creamy Carrara marble) is encircled on three sides by a U-shaped counter (topped in smooth walnut), a setup that suggests the front-row seats surrounding the Guthrie’s thrust stage and emphasizes the up-close-and-personal nature of the restaurant’s cook/diner relationship.
Dishware was chosen with care and flair, including stoneware crafted by Chicago potter Ashley Lin and sleek service trays and boxes designed and built by Kaysen’s brother Sean Kaysen. Vintage pieces were purchased with a connoisseur’s eye.
A favorite moment was when staffer Tai Rosa Maldonado brandished a selection of steak knives — each one more gorgeous than the last — with a wicked “Choose your weapon” invitation. Turns out, Jackson Schwartz of Hennepin Made in Minneapolis fashioned the handles from a box-elder tree that lived its life on nearby Nicollet Island.
A worthwhile investment
As my visits progressed, any would-be issues quickly evaporated. Would I be forced to make polite small talk with my fellow diners? Nope. Would the staff’s constant interaction impede upon meaningful conversation with my dinner partner? Not at all. Would the evening’s pace slow to a crawl, as so many tasting menus tend to do? No, it clipped along, without feeling rushed. And would I have to endure a night of stiff and starchy culinary pretense? The opposite, actually.
And finally, was it worth it? Demi does not come cheap. All-in — that’s the meal, a beverage pairing, tax and the 20% hospitality fee — runs roughly $200 per person.
But it’s all relative, especially in a culture that is valuing experiences over material goods. By comparison, it’s possible to spend a similar amount — or more — at a high-end steakhouse.
One hitch: The laws of supply (just 200 prepaid seats per week, the head count equivalent to a plain-old Monday night at Spoon and Stable) and demand (tons of it) pretty much guarantee a kill-or-be-killed scramble when attempting to snare a reservation.
The brawl occurs in cyberspace. On the first day of each month, the next month’s seats are released on the restaurant’s website at noon. Would-be diners have to act fast. Kaysen reports that, a few weeks ago, every June reservation was snatched up in a few hours.
I know where I’ll be on June 1 at 11:55 a.m., sharp: at my laptop, refreshing that URL every 15 seconds. Send good thoughts.