Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Gavin Kaysen at Spoon and Stable
Semiotics is the study of how images and words—a phrase like “hottest restaurant ever”—derive meaning from their context. For instance, if I were to write, “Old Fashioneds are hot,” it would have a very different meaning than “the surface of the sun is hot.” A headline stating, “Soup is Hot” would contain an embedded wink, while “Venus is Hot” sends us in an entirely different orbit. Semioticians would posit that all communication is, in fact, the human mind using bits of whatever is at hand (paint, sturgeon, E-flat, lace) to create meaning in the mind of the beholder by summoning context. Without context, not only can meaning not be clear, it can’t even exist.
So let me tell you! I was in The Hottest Restaurant Ever, having an Old Fashioned, and thinking about how to put this review into useful context. Spoon and Stable is, of course, The Hottest Restaurant Ever, opened by Gavin Kaysen in late November in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis.
For context: Kaysen grew up in Minnesota and left to have the starriest cooking career imaginable, winning a James Beard Award, being named a Food & Wine Best New Chef, competing on Iron Chef, and coaching the U.S. team in the Olympics of cooking: the Bocuse d’Or. The chain of conquered summits year after year prompted whispers in his home state. Will he come back? He says he might, he says he might. He has kids now, and everyone comes back to raise kids. Then the announcement: He would come back. Then, he came back. Then the poaching commenced from Minneapolis’s finest restaurant, La Belle Vie. First went the sommelier (Bill Summerville), then the pastry chef (Diane Yang), and local media (myself included) turned all eyes, all blogs on Spoon and Stable. Headlines gushed forth: The front door was installed, plans for pot roast were announced, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud flew in for the opening! Kaysen was featured in this very magazine before he had served a paying customer a single dish. The day the phone line opened, reservations booked solid, for months. Customers lined up outside in the falling snow in late afternoons hoping to get bar tables, which are first come, first served. I was one of those customers. I ordered the pot roast.
The menu comprises half a dozen appetizers, three pastas, which come as main courses or served in smaller portions, and half a dozen entrées, priced $25 to $39. There’s a bar menu of casual snacks as well (the full dinner menu is also available at the bar), and an elaborate dessert program. I tried most of the menu and found a few things that were very good, a great many which were very dull, and came away with little idea of how to put this all into a meaningful, useful context for a savvy Minneapolis restaurant-goer. Do you like hot restaurants? Then you’ll certainly like going to Spoon and Stable. But you already knew that. Do you mostly chase extraordinary plates of exquisite cuisine? Then Spoon and Stable may strike you as faltering.
There were some extraordinary plates: scallop crudo was a sensuous intensity of fresh scallops firmed up a bit with lime zest and salt, then decorated with charred scallion vinaigrette, a chiffonade of shiso leaves, compressed vinegared green apples, and crackling slips of garlic and fresno chili peppers. Each bite was like a waltz-step of lush pleasure followed by a tap-dance snap and crackle of vibrant spice. Delightful. The variation on salmon gravlax, with dewy but taut salmon paired with jewels of roast beets and orange was just as lively and engrossing. Pasta and risotto dishes were excellent. The perfectly chewy ropes of bucatini glistened with sea urchin cream and were studded with sea-fragrant clams, culminating in a charmingly highbrow and peasant-soul-satisfying combination that is so hard to achieve. Crispy potatoes, thrice-cooked in a process of baking, tearing, butter, garlic, and best-kitchens-in-the-world magic, are so good they could become a modern classic: Eat those right away.
But there were more dull dishes than magical ones. Dorothy’s Pot Roast (named for Kaysen’s beloved grandmother), which I tried again and again, tasted unseasoned, despite the fancy chanterelle mushrooms tucked beneath it, the raw slices of gossamer thin-sliced carrot on top, and a fancy rosemary broth poured tableside. The slow-cooked cod, seared Arctic char, and poached sturgeon were all too subtle, inducing yawns from the table. I didn’t have an entrée from the dinner menu I can honestly recommend.
Likewise, most desserts were forgettable. The apple crisp with elements of olive oil cake and coconut sorbet came together as little more than sweet; a grape frangipane with white wine sorbet was so delicate it tasted like nothing in particular. The exception was a buttercup squash custard with a pumpkin-pie-like ring of delicate custard containing a tiny lake of luxuriant sauce: pierce the wall of custard and the sauce tumbles out among quince balls and toasted marshmallow cream hillocks. It’s charming, and the tartness of the quince plays beautifully with the different flavors of sweet cream and pie spice. Why does the food here tend to want to erase itself so much of the time?
It does this less so in the bar. There, arancini, Italian-style, breaded rice balls, are filled with a liquid fontina cheese that oozes out, making it easy to blot up the black truffled crumbs that act as the little nest on the plate. Duck meatloaf sliders, made by combining duck meat and foie gras into a succulent, beautifully seared puck, then sliding them onto tiny brioche toasts, are indulgent and crave-worthy. They go well with the restrained, but darn-near-perfect cocktails by bartender Robb Jones. His roasted pineapple accent to the Old Fashioned is clever, adding a twist without the clutter.
The wine list, by Bill Summerville, is a wonder of adventure and economy, with $26 bottles of good Chianti as well as extensive offerings by single houses, such as the Austrian Weingut Prager and Italian Emidio Pepe. I particularly enjoyed the ease of “Bill’s Pick,” a nightly wine by the glass that lets diners spelunk through the wilds of Summerville’s educated taste, without risk of bottle cost. Summerville appears at most tables a few times during the evening as part of the service in the dining room, which is both courtly and gracious. Securing a table here does lead to the satisfying sense that you are in the center of the world, and possibly its king. This feeling is quadrupled when the kitchen sends out a tuft of fresh cotton candy the size of a cheerleader’s pompom to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries: Every eye turns to the huge pouf, and however much you felt like the king of the world, with the cotton candy, you feel it more so.
Poufs and kingly feelings notwithstanding, I’ll probably return with greatest excitement to the bar, to pile up appetizers and eat duck sliders. The restaurant’s food really is at its best when it’s riffing, playing, and being relaxed. While I’m in the bar, I’ll no doubt get to think more about context.
One night, I sat beside a table of Medtronic executives who compared each and every course with Bar La Grassa. OK, I thought. That’s their context. Another night I was beside a pair of very pretty young 20-somethings, one of whom went positively bonkers, sending things back: “I thought this was going to be better!” she sputtered. The kitchen graciously offered to replace her food, even though there was nothing particularly wrong with it. I happened to stand next to her later at the valet, and she was still ranting in disbelief. That’s her context, I thought. Kaysen told me later that he’s talked to customers who thought the menu would be structured like a tasting menu, like at La Belle Vie. Another context. I’ve tried and tried to imagine what I’d think if Spoon and Stable was a new restaurant by a comparative nobody, some promising sous chef from Tilia, let’s say. If that were the context I’d think: This kid shows lots of promise; he really can cook; he is one to watch! Is that, in the context of Kaysen’s career, a withering insult?
There’s a lot of promise here. At its best—in the bar—it seems to thrive because it doesn’t have any baggage. Baggage, of course, is another word we use for context when it’s bumming us out. Because even context has a context, and I think it’s inarguable that no other restaurant in the history of Minnesota has opened with so much context, throwing a spotlight on the complications of modern life, in which we all are trapped in a cultural quicksand of our own creation, with nothing to save us but our shared experience in the insistent human condition of needing to eat every day. But now we can do that eating at Spoon and Stable, which is The Hottest Restaurant Ever, and more—and less—than that, too.
211 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-224-9850, spoonandstable.com