After three reviews in a row of Twin Cities meals that ranged from the farcical to the mediocre to the acceptable, I am very pleased to say that this is a report on a meal that I thought was, on the whole, very good indeed: at Spoon and Stable. As those who follow the food scene—in the Twin Cities and beyond—know, Spoon and Stable is a very hot restaurant. It opened in late 2014 with a great deal of local fanfare and was almost immediately nominated for a James Beard award (though it did not win). Later in 2015 Bon Appetit named them one of the best new restaurants in the country.
Now, like me, you might feel that these kinds of recognitions generally speak more to the efforts of a restaurant’s PR agency than they do to those of its kitchen. It’s also the case that the chef, Gavin Kaysen, is very much a known quantity in the business at large. He won a Beard award while chef de cuisine at Cafe Boulud in New York (and the restaurant gained a Michelin star during his time there), and he’s also the head coach for the American Bocuse d’Or team. Of course all of this also suggests that he knows his way around a kitchen. And indeed the local reviews have generally been very good as well. Consequently, for the first few months it was all but impossible to get in. The one dissenting view was that of the reliable Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, but even that review suggested that the problems might lie with a kitchen trying to find its identity (and feet). Accordingly, once enough time had gone by I made a reservation. (And while time has gone by, the buzz has not abated—I still had to book more than a month out and we ate at 9 pm on a Thursday night.)
There were four of us—we were dining with the friends who’d accompanied us to Corner Table and to Piccolo’s fifth anniversary dinner—and we ate a goodly percentage of the menu. As such, I feel comfortable saying that if Spoon and Stable was still finding its feet in January, it’s very nimble on them now; and if you’d felt—as I did—that at least some fraction of their early acclaim might have come from hype and excitement about a big city chef coming back home, I’m happy to say that the acclaim is well-deserved anyway. Which is not to say that we loved every single thing we ate (the desserts in particular, in an echo of Moskowitz Grumdahl’s experience, did not move us at all); but, on the whole, it seemed clear that this is a kitchen being run confidently and ably by someone well-versed in tradition but in no sense hidebound by it; this was grown-up cooking for grown-ups but it was far from boring or conventional.
Before I get to what we ate, a few quick thoughts about the space and the atmosphere. It’s your regulation contemporary fine-dining restaurant, which means that both the kitchen and the ventilation ducts are exposed; it’s noisy; there’s a bar (which abuts the main dining room a little too intimately); there’s kitchen counter dining; and since it’s Minnesota, you can expect to see diners clad in shorts. The service was an occasionally odd mix of the informal and stagily formal: we were addressed as “guys” by the same server who then stood with a bottle of wine thrust theatrically out in front of him while I tasted it; throughout the meal he was present without being obtrusive (too often you get service which is absent when you need it but too present when you don’t) but he also gave me a good splash while pouring a glass of water with great flourish. None of these things came close to detracting from the meal, it should be said.
So what did we eat? We each got an appetizer, entree and dessert; and to be safe we also split two of the pasta dishes between us (these, by the way, are available in both small and large portions). The only part of the menu that we skipped entirely, though not by design, was the fish and the sides. We ate rather promiscuously from each others’ plates.
Appetizers (generally broken into “Garden” and “Chilled” on the current menu)
- Chilled Corn Soup, biscayne bay crab, fennel, vanilla oil, brioche: This was dynamite. The crab and fennel, perched precariously on a bridge of brioche over the soup, were good but it was the chilled soup that was the star: light but packed with the essence of sweet corn and crab, without getting anywhere close to cloying. One big spoon of this from my friend’s bowl and I knew we were going to have a good meal. (And I’m sorry, Michelle, for asking for more.)
- Day Boat Scallop Crudo, green apple, shiso, chilies, scallion vinaigrette: Also quite good; very well composed in every way; as always, with my sashimi-bias, I found the scallop lost a bit too much of its sweetness in the cure but the person who ate most of it disagreed.
- Bison Tartare, harissa aïoli, socca chips, cilantro: Tied the soup in my view for the star of this round, but some had it alone at the top. The socca chips seemed like an unnecessary concession to current culinary fashion but the tartare was elementally good and was dressed very well.
- Coho Salmon Tartine, pumpernickel bread, caramelized onion, smoked créme fraîche, snap peas: Accordingly, it pains me to say that my order felt somewhat out of place. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t trying to transcend its open face sandwichiness in the way I’d hoped it might while ordering it. It’s on their brunch menu too, and there I’d be much happier with it.
On the whole, then, a 75% hit rate on the first course.
This was a little shakier. We got two of the three pasta dishes to share, passing on the sorghum “risotto”.
- Garganelli, heirloom tomatoes, pancetta, red onion, basil, pleasent ridge cheese: Perfectly cooked pasta but the sauce was overly salty. We also agreed that as decent home cooks we could probably approximate at least 80% of the optimal version of this in our own kitchens.
- Spaghetti Nero, prawns, mussels, octopus, fra diavolo, fines herbes: Now this one we didn’t think we could come close to ourselves—the seafood and pasta were perfectly cooked and the sauce was light yet robust at the same time. Alas, the sauce was once again marred by an over-enthusiastic use of salt.
So, two dishes that could have been very good but were a little out of balance. (I should note here that none of us come close to being salt-phobes.)
We got everything from the current “Land” section of the menu.
- Roasted Duck Breast, kohlrabi, pickled plums, sausage, green juniper jus: There was not one thing on this plate that didn’t belong or wasn’t perfectly cooked. And the duck was properly ducky. I would have been very happy if this had been my main. And they got the kohlrabi to have character (we thought it was daikon) which shows further evidence of skill.
- Crispy Suckling Pork, roasted beets, ancho and black bean sauce, cherry jus: Likewise for the pork. This was the missus’ main and so I got a lot more of it. The pork was cooked just wonderfully, with perfectly crisp skin encompassing succulent meat from the leg, loin, belly and shoulder of the animal. And the sauce and jus were perfectly complementary.
- Grilled Colorado Lamb, fava bean fritter, marcona almond, baby fennel, preserved grape jus: Another hit. The lamb, from the saddle, was lamby and done to perfection. The person who ate most of it observed that the fava bean fritter was superfluous but not having tasted it I can only record his opinion. Everything else on the plate worked very well together.
- Bison Striploin, bone marrow, king oyster mushrooms, corn, garlic scapes, natural jus: This was mine, and as good as the other three dishes were, I was well-pleased that this was the one I was eating the most of. The bison was cooked perfectly again (medium-rare) but it was the black garlic puree it was sitting on that tied the dish together (much as the Dude’s rug did for his living room). I’m not entirely sure how they did it but it was a perfect marriage of salty/savoury and earthy/umami flavours that was almost reminiscent in some ways of a mole negro. I liked it so much that I didn’t really care that the marrow and king oyster mushroom were sort of anonymous.
So an excellent 100% hit rate on this round. In fact, I’m tempted to give it 125%.
As I noted earlier, the desserts uniformly did not move us. None were bad but none really got us going after that wonderful round of meat. If it weren’t for the fact that our friends were equally ho-hum about the desserts I would have hazarded that perhaps we just don’t get Diane Yang’s approach, which reads very well but never quite activates lizard brain pleasures, which is what I generally look for in dessert. Both at this meal (and on our previous acquaintance with her offerings when she was passing through Heyday) the dishes seemed more like intellectual riffs on dessert than elemental pleasures. Which is fine in its own way, but seemed a little out step with what had come before.
- Créme Fraîche Cheesecake, cream cheese soufflé, plum sorbet: I have to admit that every time I order cheesecake that is not fundamentally New York-style cheesecake, I end up wishing I were eating New York-style cheesecake instead. That didn’t happen here, but mostly because it didn’t really tick a cheesecake box for me. It was fine, but it did nothing for me.
- Chocolate Pudding Cake, salty cashew ice cream, cocoa nib: This one seemed like it was made for me (though a different member of the party ordered it) but it was entirely bloodless, which is a good thing for chocolate cake in a literal sense but not so much in a figurative sense.
- Manjari Chocolate Panna Cotta, toasted brioche ice cream, milk espuma: Again, nothing wrong with it, but somewhat dull.
- Honey and Cream Cake, strawberries, sweetened condensed milk ice cream: Ironically, this, which seemed the least interesting by description, was the highlight of this round; but that may just have been by juxtaposition.
Next time I’m pushing for cheese and alcoholic dessert.
Final thoughts after the slideshow below.
All of this, plus a bottle of wine (a reasonably-priced red from Alto Adige) and some coffees came to about $95/head with tax and tip. On the one hand, this suffers as well from the curse of my Joe Beef meal (I noted there that after paying $75 for that mindbogglingly good dinner it was a bit galling to pay as much or more for meals at restaurants quite a bit below that level); on the other hand, if I’d had drinks with my folly of a meal at Travail I would have paid at least as much. So, on the whole, I suppose it’s reasonable enough for the local scene (and I note that Piccolo’s prices have also recently gone up). At any rate, despite the dessert and salty pasta issues, we’ll be back and I do recommend it enthusiastically for a special occasion meal (though, please, don’t wear shorts).
By the way, the menu that I describe above seems to still be available. We ate there in late August, right before they took their end of summer break, and I was under the impression a new seasonal menu was going to replace it when they re-opened; but that hasn’t happened yet. So, if you go soon, I really recommend any of these meat dishes. If you get (or have gotten) any of the fish dishes please let me know how those compare. And speaking of their summer break, I want to thank the General Manager, Catherine Yoo who patiently answered some of my idiot questions about a couple of the dishes while on her break—much appreciated!