Meticulous, adept, warm, clear-eyed, cultured: Decorated chef Gavin Kaysen, recognized by many in these parts as the consummate "hometown boy made good," is comfortable with most of the adjectives his diners, colleagues, and admirers have used to describe him. Just don't call him an innovator.
"In my opinion, there isn't really anything new to be done. Everything has been innovated before," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm not striving to do precious food or something no one has ever seen before. I think the interesting thing is to apply your own personality. It's about taking [a dish] and finding whatever part of it really connects to your soul."
Translation: Just because you first read about Kaysen in the New York Times doesn't mean his restaurant will be Per Se.
In fact, one of the most exciting things about Spoon and Stable, located (where else?) in the North Loop, is how accessible it is. One might even describe it as homey, that is, if your home is a place where polished tree-trunk slabs stand in for tabletops, everyone uses hand-made wooden butter knives from a small village in Sweden, it always smells like wood fire and roasted meats, and every meal ends with a tin containing a nickel-sized macaron, a perfectly caramelized canelle, a dreamy marshmallow truffle, and a sugar-covered grownup gummy.
Despite early stories of impossible-to-nab reservations, the vibe at Spoon and Stable is relaxed, welcoming, and unstuffy. When there is a line for the walk-ins only lounge, Kaysen has been known to bring hot beverages to the intrepid waiting in the wintry Minnesota elements. "I never expected that, honestly. To have people lined up out the door," says Kaysen. "That is a testament to the clientele here and how they have enabled us to cook how we cook."
How they cook is pure European elegance meets American comfort. One of the top-selling items here is a tender braised pot roast, inspired by Kaysen's grandmother Dorothy (as are the nightly family-style dinner specials), all dressed up with chanterelle mushrooms and boiled dumplings with bone-marrow centers. However, we were far more taken with the sturgeon, poached slow and low in beef fat to infuse all kinds of flavor and play off the natural meatiness of the fish. Taking the opportunity to make a tribute to the unsung hero of the crisper drawer, celery, Kaysen serves the stalks braised with sherry jus, and the starchy, palate-cleansing root is made into a luxurious puree. Celery: It's not just a vehicle for peanut butter.
If you're having a hard time choosing between entrees here, we developed a good rule of thumb during the course of our visits: If it contains sausage, order it. Kaysen and his team are grinding meat and stuffing casings by hand to make fennel-freckled sausage to go with the cider-glazed roast chicken, and spotlight-stealing spicy, chewy chorizo for the seared Arctic char dish with roasted fennel. A country-style sausage patty was also one of the three ways Kaysen chose to present the Red Wattle heritage pork they are using, alongside a beautifully caramelized piece of the belly and a seared piece of the loin, all strewn with bitter mustard greens for contrast. Every single entree can and should be paired with a side of steakhouse-style creamed spinach, which they top with fried cheese curds in a happy marriage of virtuous, nutritious ingredients and unapologetically indulgent ones.
Working backward, Kaysen's strongest starters — at least from the dining room menu; there's a smaller, separate one that's available in the lounge — tend to feature raw textures and classic flavor combinations. The dill-cured salmon with beets and horseradish flaunts its Nordic influence, but has an ultra-light touch. Clean and lean bison tartare is finely and expertly chopped, bound by a glorious pale egg yolk, and scooped up with socca chips, little chickpea flour crisps that are a well-loved street food in the south of France.
In these colder months, you might want to go for the silky fairytale pumpkin soup instead, served with a ring of dark, coffee-flavored brioche (inventively baked right in the coffee can). The soup is poured tableside, through the center of the ring, such that it resembles a sunny side-up egg from another universe. Or, for a more rib-sticking start, the creamy-centered truffle arancini from the lounge menu were irresistible, as was pretty much anything from the pasta section. But we were particularly taken with the thick sheets of handmade pappardelle coated in a delicious gravy-like goat ragu and the gorgeous straws of bucatini covered in an uni cream sauce, both brackish and balanced by its richness. We totally could have eaten king-sized portions of each, but it was nice to have the option of getting half so we could sample more.
One thing Kaysen is doing differently than in his former life at Cafe Boulud in NYC is that he's not wasting any time in making changes to the menu. "Normally I would wait until reviews come out," laughs Kaysen. "But when I started seeing some of the same people coming in three, four times a week I thought, 'I need to change it up. I need to offer them something different.'" And with that, a special caveat to this review: Dishes mentioned herein are subject to change without notice, but we have a feeling you'll be pleasantly surprised, no matter what.
Knowing the reputation Kaysen's mentor Daniel Boulud has for impeccable accommodation and the 80-page training manual that all Spoon and Stable employees receive as required reading, it's no surprise that seamless service and top-to-bottom hospitality are emphasized here, which elevates the experience considerably.
"I run the restaurant like I would my own house," Kaysen says. "At home there is no front of house versus back of house, so we don't divide things up like that here either."
His philosophy helps create this united front in the restaurant, and with Robb Jones heading up the bar program and pastry dynamo Diane Yang on last course, everything from drinks to dessert here feels continuous and cohesive. The sweets in particular manage to subtly mirror Kaysen's style, and almost every plate is a showcase for all possible textures of an ingredient: frozen, firm, formed, soft, whipped, candied, and crumbled, but nothing gets too wacky or modernist either.
There's the super-moist rectangle of almond-rich red grape frangipane cake, layered over a slice of perfumey pear panna cotta with white grape sorbet and almond brittle; a velvety butternut squash custard with house-made marshmallows, sort of a take on Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole; a bright and beautiful lemon curd mousse with slightly smoky bits of pineapple; and a trio of ice creams — vanilla bean, malted milk, and salted caramel — on Pringles-shaped sugar cookies. Oh, and there are three intense chocolate desserts, too. The after-dinner show is impressive, to say the least.
Kaysen's unique insider-outsider status has granted him access to our dining bubble and clearly, he has decided to use his power for good. Had he returned as the arrogant New Yorker determined to teach us all a thing or two about fine dining, Spoon and Stable would not have a future in Minneapolis. So maybe Kaysen isn't an inventor or innovator, and as we know, he's happy not to be called one. But for the plates he's putting out, the next generation of chefs he is training, the bar for service that he's setting, and for the well-deserved national attention Spoon and Stable is bringing to the Twin Cities dining scene, you probably should consider Gavin Kaysen some kind of culinary carpenter, because he's nailing it.
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