… and then, in the hottest new restaurant in town, there was a fire. Luckily, as soon as the burlap on the bread plate caught fire at the next table, the waiter deftly smothered it with his bare hand, leaving just a trail of smoke and an understated, “Well, the bread is exciting.” Potential tragedy became nothing but a good story to accompany an extraordinary meal.
Handling the incident with aplomb, precision, and humor, the server reflected the character of Spoon and Stable, the new enterprise of chef-owner Gavin Kaysen (two photos down, left), who before returning home from New York to open the restaurant was executive chef under maestro Daniel Boulud. (Kaysen was selected Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2007 and received the 2008 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.) The space, service, and food exude a quiet confidence reflective of a proud — but not prideful — mid-sized, Midwestern city that doesn’t stand on ceremony.
Spoon and Stable is at the leading edge of what we might think of as “comfortable fine dining.” Like Princess Di or Beyonce, it’s both regal and of the people (at least the people with enough disposable income to splurge on an expensive meal). With high ceilings and large skylights, the bright, Shea-designed space (once a horse stable) is elegant, but not the least bit stuffy. Modern fixtures, like beautiful white bench seats and sleek black dining tables, add style and grace, while hardwood floors, brick walls, and of course, the large piece of driftwood art displaying Kaysen’s collection of stolen spoons provide warmth. As an added bonus, the noise level is civilized.
The open design — including a spacious, exposed kitchen — also breaks with fine dining tradition by removing barriers between front and back of the house and between diners and chefs. Bar seats at the edge of the open kitchen allow diners to interact with Kaysen and his crew. And the handsome, windowed wine closet with its library ladder adds function and curiosity to the main dining room.
Led by wine director and general manager, Bill Summerville (Solera, La Belle Vie), the service follows through on the design’s promise of a high-end yet warm experience. Welcoming diners in from the wintry bluster, the staff has been handing out hot buttered rum and whisking away cumbersome coats while deftly answering questions about the menu and Summerville’s expansive and exciting wine list. They never seem to look over their shoulders or fidget to get to other tables. You get the sense that this is your server, your bartender.
To our great appreciation, the servers also refrain from the upsell—when ordering the pot roast ($27), we asked if the supplemental foie gras ($12) was essential or more of a showpiece, and our server gamely said it wasn’t necessary (and he was right, the roast was sufficiently rich and had a perfect amount of fat without the foie). Equally impressive, the staff freely admitted when they didn’t know answers to the kinds of questions food critics love to ask (“What makes those dots of sauce tangy and sweet?”). But they do find answers: When we ate at the bar, our poor bartender took several trips to the kitchen for answers rather than make educated guesses. And at no time did he seem aggrieved, though it would have been understandable if he had.
The place is very well staffed — at times there seemed to be one front-of-the-house person for every two or so diners. Although a luxury, an abundance of staff can lead to annoying, over-attentive service, but Summerville and his team avoid this fatal flaw. The well-coordinated team anticipated all of our needs without getting in our faces. Not once did we have to call a server over to fill a glass, replenish bread, describe the elements of a dish, remove a plate, bring a dessert menu or bill, or get our oversized coats. And more importantly, we didn’t have to wish away staff from our table.
Kaysen’s cuisine pairs well with the space and hospitality. The food isn’t flashy — there aren’t bells and whistles, meat glue, or liquid nitrogen. But it is precise, beautiful, and delicious. Many dishes may sound and even look simple, but nearly all we tried included complex preparations and magical flavor and texture combinations. An appetizer of fire-roasted baby carrots (above, $9) (large enough for a small entree) led to a barrage of exuberant swearing: tender, smoky, sweet, and accented with gentle curry sauce, petite rye croutons, sunflower seeds, and shaved fresh carrot, the dish made us fall in love with the root vegetable all over again.
The joyful cursing continued as we savored an equally stunning and delicious piece of delicate pollock (standing in for cod that evening) served over Tunisian couscous and a mild za’atar yogurt (above, $25). The dish’s details — slight crunch from a tiara of frisee, funky sweetness from fermented and pureed black garlic, and a hint of spice from dots of romesco — took it from great to incredible.
This was true of nearly everything we tried: carefully considered accompaniments made seemingly normal dishes exceptional and absolutely worth the price of admission. Harissa aioli gave lean bison tartare ($16) just the right amount of fat and spice; apple confit and ginger added zip to a comforting, velvety squash soup ($8); orange segments brightened smoky and supple octopus ($14); hazelnuts and nibs of romanesco added earthiness and crunch to a splendid bowl of cavatelli and delicate sweetbreads; and hearts of palm chips, fried ginger, and citrus contrasted brilliantly with buttery rich Hamachi (above, $17).
Spoon and Stable’s desserts — the handiwork of pastry chef Dianne Yang (La Belle Vie, Heyday) — are exquisite. It takes restraint not to fill up a smartphone’s memory with photos of Yang’s artwork — even more not to eat all of the sweet options in a single sitting. Our favorite, the “apple crisp” (above, $10) nods to the classic and then goes its own way. Apple mousse and caramel crumble are delicious, but a thin layer of olive oil cake on the bottom and a small scoop of coconut sorbet on the top make the dish. The cake gives it a pleasant, savory quality, while the refreshing cap of sorbet teased us with a taste of summer. Like the other desserts we tried, the crisp is elegant and playful. While less adventurous than Yang’s offerings at Heyday, all the desserts are creative and damn tasty.
The only minor letdowns on our visits came in sampling the most stereotypically Midwestern menu items. While familiar and flavorful, the pot roast (with or without the supplemental foie gras) was delicious, but not exciting (though its $27 price tag raised an eyebrow or two among the diners). And creamed spinach with cheese curds ($8), an indulgent combo, added more confusion than culinary value to our meal. We emphasize that these were minor aberrations; both were well balanced and quickly eaten, question marks be damned.
It’s rare to find so little to fault in such a young restaurant. From the hand-picked staff, first-rate beverage program, and classy-yet-warm space to the impeccable service, congenial hospitality, and inspired food, Spoon and Stable is superb. Expectations have been high, and Kaysen, Summerville, Yang, and an all-star team of wait staff, chefs, and bartenders have risen to the hype. If the table fires are kept in check, Spoon and Stable will quickly turn the corner from curious upstart to fine dining institution.
Spoon and Stable
Fine Dining in the North Loop, Minneapolis
211 N First St, Minneapolis 55401
Sun-Thurs: Dining Room, 5pm-10pm; Bar 5pm-12am
Fri-Sat: Dining Room, 5pm-10:30pm; Bar 5pm-1am
OWNER / CHEF: Gavin Kaysen
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$39
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No