For a chef who left his native Bloomington as a teenager and didn’t return (professionally, anyway) for 16 years, Gavin Kaysen wields an uncanny understanding of how Midwesterners want to dine.
He’s made quite the homecoming. As it approaches its fifth month, his Spoon and Stable is a Twin Cities rarity in that it is a fully realized restaurant experience, with each aspect of its operation polished to a highly professional shine.
Kaysen’s cooking isn’t edgy or frenetic or gimmicky; no liquid nitrogen, no froths, no flashy, knock-you-upside-the-noggin showstoppers. Instead, the food’s considerable appeal lies in its nuance, its quest for purity and in its quietly confident sense of technical proficiency.
This is one chef who doesn’t require the services of an editor. Extraneous and superfluous are not in Kaysen’s vocabulary. Nine times out of 10, what emerges from the kitchen is sublimely delicious.
Everything a person needs to know about Kaysen’s ethos lies in my favorite dish on his winter menu. It’s tortellini, filled with sweet Vidalia onions that have been immersed in salt and baked until the skins are blackened. The onions’ creamy insides are removed and blended with ricotta and a bit of lemon zest to make the pasta’s filling, while the blackened skins are reduced to make a caramelized onion stock.
The firm pasta is doused in a ragu of charred eggplant and charred tomatoes and slow-braised lamb neck, and the whole shebang is finished with pops of mint and crispy Japanese eggplant chips. The layers of flavors just wash over you, and if my occupation didn’t require me to focus on one new restaurant after another, I would sneak into the S&S bar on a weekly basis, order the five-piece portion ($12) and a glass of wine and feel fortunate to call it my go-to weeknight dinner.
Charring is the kitchen’s action verb of the moment. Kaysen spent nine Weber-free years living in New York City, and upon his return to Minneapolis he dove into back-yard grilling with gusto. Green onions, blackened on the grill, become the foundation of a yuzu-lime zest vinaigrette that provides the just-right acidic finish to shimmering raw scallops. Leeks, left overnight on the wood-burning grill’s smoldering oak and hickory embers, are the underpinning for lardo-cooked veal, a revelation in supple texture.
If Kaysen wasn’t a chef, he could be a perfume manufacturer, so strong is his olfactory sense. The fragrances tickle the nose but don’t assault the taste buds, whether it’s hints of Thai building blocks surrounding dense red snapper, or hoisin and mushrooms heralding the arrival of meticulously grilled pork, or vividly floral tangelos lighting up succulent lobster.
Kaysen and chef de cuisine Chris Nye honor classic dishes but inject seasonal invention. An ever-evolving parade of silky soups reveals little one-act plays in a bowl. I loved how wintry apricots and celery root reacted against seared foie gras, and the way braised cabbage gave an essence-of-February vibe to a pair of beef cuts, each flawlessly prepared.
Oh, and another favorite? Wisconsin-raised trout, pink and luscious, seared on one side and served with butter-roasted cauliflower enveloped in a brown-butter zabaglione.
Dessert and brunch
Pastry chef Diane Yang’s cerebral, sculptural and unfailingly refreshing desserts are more than just meal cappers. They’re ingenious multi-dimensional balancing acts, revealing complex texture, temperature and density disparities while simultaneously unlocking soft-spoken flirtations between sweet and salty.
For the just-debuted Sunday brunch, Yang’s work takes an entirely different direction, and the results are equally impressive. She and sous chef Tony Seguin have developed a dream of a croissant, fashioned from copious amounts of French butter; the pain au chocolat, with its wonderfully bitter Valrhona bite, is similarly fine.
Yang clearly knows her way around delicate brioche, shaping the dough into orbs and filling it with a rich, vanilla-infused cream. Kudos also to the fastidious renditions of more homelike fare: a super-moist banana bread, excellent quiche and flaky, free-form, fruit-filled tarts.
Seriously, she and Kaysen should launch a bakery counter. The North Loop could use one, and limiting access to such baked-goods goodness to a single day each week is just plain cruel.
The modest bar menu doesn’t cover a lot of ground — and doesn’t break a lot of ground, either — but there’s a definite “there” there. I would happily expend my daily allotted caloric intake on the arancini, delicately fried, dual-bite spheres of fontina-loaded Arborio rice that are freckled with decadent traces of black truffle. Careful poaching and braising nudges octopus into an agreeable toothiness, then Kaysen inserts a bit of heat through a harissa marinade before the exterior is tantalizingly blackened on the flat-top grill.
I could forever graze on the platter of mustards, beautifully pickled vegetables and thin-sliced house-cured hams, served with mouth-melting biscuits (their secret: liberal levels of tenderness-inducing pork fat) burnished in the oven to a bewitching caramel color. The grilled oysters? Firing on all snackability cylinders, thank you very much.
It’s a far more fully realized menu at Sunday brunch. In a city where a full-fledged brunch-crazed culture seems to have sprouted seemingly overnight, Spoon and Stable immediately leads the pack with an expertly executed, something-for-everyone a la carte roster.
Don’t-miss dishes include satiny dill-cured salmon on grilled roti-style flatbread, crisply delicate buttermilk waffles with tart lingonberries, superb gnocchi with delicate boudin blanc sausage and a first-rate grilled chicken paillard.
A complete experience
Nothing, truly, feels left to chance. The dining room hums, thanks to the all-seeing, suavely reassuring presence of general manager Bill Summerville, the Cary Grant of the Twin Cities restaurant scene.
Visits are bookended with finesse. The opening salvo is a spectacular rye flour baguette, cut into the shape of a wheat stalk to maximize its ultra-crusty appeal, its fragrant and teasingly sour bite a perfect foil to the smear of sweet, golden whipped butter twinkling with fat flakes of fleur de sel. The parting shot? The check arrives with a cute little tin of deftly made confections.
Even the tableware exudes a we-labored-over-every-purchase aura. Then there’s the omnipresent, seemingly tireless Kaysen, who routinely surfs his dining room with the prowess of a presidential candidate. Yet his outgoing, camera-ready presence is imbued with the genuine warmth of someone blessed with the hospitality gene.
Converting a 1906 stable into a modern eating-and-drinking Mecca is a pinnacle for Shea, the 37-year-old Minneapolis design firm with hundreds of restaurants in its portfolio (the “spoon” in the name comes from Kaysen’s well-known predilection to collect — and sometimes good-naturedly pilfer — the utensil from other restaurants).
Mirroring Kaysen’s cooking, the space operates on many interconnected levels.
Once past the curb-appealed front door, the long, narrow double-height space retains its wide-open layout yet manages to reveal its riches in stages, smoothly segueing from bustling bar through the acoustic-friendly dining room (which is dominated by a two-story, glass-encased wine storage room) before culminating in Kaysen’s envy-inducing kitchen, a variation on the Guthrie’s thrust stage writ in gleaming stainless steel and white subway tile. It’s a fitting platform for the cooking crew as workers quietly go about their tasks in their immaculate chef’s whites.
Yes, this might be the Twin Cities’ best-looking restaurant, a loft-like setting crowned with a seemingly endless skylight and awash in an understated pearl-and-tan color palette, oh-so-flattering lighting (is this a restaurant, or a plastic surgeon’s office?) and a sprinkling of whimsical, site- specific art and furniture crafted by Kaysen’s older brother Sean, a Los Angeles-based set designer.
As I luxuriated in that beautiful, welcoming environment, my mind kept stubbornly returning to the tiresome, hype-fueled and frankly toxic cycle that has clouded the ever-burgeoning dining scene. You know: the insatiable hunger for the Next Hottest Thing, and the throwaway culture that rides in its wake. It was my enough-already moment, and I’m grateful to Kaysen for the fad-proof enterprise he has created. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
That Spoon and Stable is the real deal comes as no surprise. Kaysen spent nearly a decade under the exacting tutelage of Daniel Boulud — one of this hemisphere’s most accomplished chefs — a priceless on-the-job Ph.D. program in the art of restaurant ownership.
One of the most exciting prospects of Kaysen’s arrival is how he’s already preaching the Gospel According to Boulud to the next generation of local chefs. A rising tide lifts all boats, right?
Which leads to another question (OK, two): Are there any more Gavin Kaysens out there? And how quickly can they be lured to Minnesota?