Review: Delicious and divisive, Demi isn’t for everyone

Smoked trout with fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, lemon verbena ice, and dill crème fraîche at Demi // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Smoked trout with fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, lemon verbena ice, and dill crème fraîche at Demi // Photo by Sam Ziegler

It’s not difficult to understand why reservations for Demi are nearly impossible to come by—it’s a very small place that makes a very big promise. Dine at Demi and you get a concentrated, multi-course blast of the same intensely cosmopolitan hospitality that distinguishes its sister restaurants of Spoon and Stable and Bellecour.

Demi’s Chef de Cuisine Adam Ritter with Chef and Owner Gavin Kaysen // Photo by Sam Ziegler

If you choose to go big (and why wouldn’t you?) you can pre-order Demi’s WC Whitney Menu, a 2.5-hour dining experience that includes (in its current springtime iteration) at least 16 distinct tastes. The idea of taking the potent appeal of chef Gavin Kaysen’s cuisine, cranking up the ambition, and then rationing its availability is ingenious; it’s a license to attempt just about anything and charge just about any price.

After we snagged a reservation for this little North Loop superstar, we found ourselves wrestling to pin down the heart of this new restaurant. Is it a one-of-a-kind experience that justifies the cost and scramble for access? Or is it merely fancy food for the 1%?

And here’s where that searching leaves us: profoundly divided. Demi is a great restaurant and a fine value viewed through some lenses, and a missed opportunity when viewed through others. With that in mind, choose your own adventure for this review.

Let’s start with a primal question: How do you feel about spending a lot of money on dinner?

Money is no object! (Go to section 3)

Money is definitely an object! (Go to section 2)

Chef Gavin Kaysen pouring bacon, mint, pea broth starter tableside at Demi // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Section 2: Money is Definitely an Object

With its hard-to-snag reservations, bespoke cocktail service, and Travail-meets-“Billions” atmosphere, Demi works hard to justify its prices, which are—by any calculus short of “fine-dining in Tokyo”—steep. Our dinner for two was $458.18. That includes two coursed meals (at $125 each for a meal of 16 small tastes), an optional aperitif ($13 a head), one of the menu’s most modestly priced bottles of wine ($60), and coffee ($5), plus a mandatory 20 percent service charge and variety of food, service, and alcohol taxes. If we’d done the wine pairing ($75 a head, or $105 for the reserve pairing) or even the non-alcoholic beverage pairing ($55 each!) with dinner, the bill would have been higher still. Slice our $460 Demi bill in half and we still could have had a grand old time at Meritage, Restaurant Alma, or—and this is highly relevant—Spoon and Stable or Bellecour.

The difference seems to come via the pomp and circumstance of the meal, from the tableside application of blowtorches to flavored ice and hazelnut shells, to the hostess and bartender shaking your hand and politely asking your name, to the up-to-the-minute cool factor of being served at an elegant wooden horseshoe of a communal table.

Of course, price is only one dimension when it comes to dining. Another thing to consider is an edible sense of place—is it a virtue to be tied to one small part of the world, or is it better to roam freely?

A sense of place matters (Go to Section 4)

I’m just here for the food (Go to Section 5)

Wagyu striploin is sliced tableside by Gavin Kaysen // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Section 3: Money is no object!

The food at Demi is a full-course press of fine ingredients married to exquisite taste and skilled preparation. Full stop. From the meal’s first taste (a warm, soothing mouthful of bacon, pea, and mint broth) to its last (a charming dessert assortment that included a still-warm, salt-sprinkled Rice Krispie treat) each item popped with personality. It’s difficult to know precisely which items to call out amid 16 courses of big flavors, delicate textures, and clever presentations, but here are a few that fly to the top of thought:

The meal’s show-stopper came early on, at the start of our sixth course. Water poured into a bowl full of ornamental greens (still hanging around from a previous course) created a fog-like effect thanks to some cleverly hidden dry ice; meanwhile, our server used a hand torch to melt a circular sheet of lemon verbena ice over a dish of smoked trout, fiddlehead ferns, and asparagus with dill creme fraiche. You like stories? Here’s a story: IT’S SPRING, BABY! (For the record: the dish itself was delicious, popping with all the fresh and smoked flavor you’d hope for.)

Ricotta gnudi (served with morels, ramps, parmesan, and green garlic) evoked the most delicate, elevated little scoops of mashed potatoes that you could possibly imagine.

A soy-milk pudding with shaved coconut, birch syrup, and mint was texturally gentle and popped with sharp, sweet, smooth, nutty, and otherwise complementary bold flavors. It’s the sort of thing that you wouldn’t think to make or order, and the sort of thing you’ll be thinking about all year when people ask you about your most memorable dessert.

From the perspective of dining in a cosmopolitan fashion, it’s a hell of a nice meal. But the universality of much of the menu raises the question: Should Demi, which Kaysen touted in his introductory video as “a restaurant that’s focused on Northern, local cuisine,” have more of a tether to the Upper Midwest?

A sense of place matters (go to Section 4)

I’m just here for the food (go to Section 5)

Smoked trout with fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, lemon verbena ice, and dill crème fraîche at Demi // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Section 4: A Sense of Place Matters

Is there—or should there be—some kind of requirement that all dining at a certain price point be local-focused? Absolutely not. But Demi lives in one of the biggest cities in the Upper Midwest and was introduced as being a vehicle for telling the region’s story; instead, it presents a menu that could fly just about anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. When we circled back to chef Gavin Kaysen after our visit, he pointed out numerous ingredients with Minnesota ties, but this was entirely missing in terms of how dishes were presented to us at the table, and the lovely souvenir menu we received on our way out the door was devoid of purveyors or geographic references.

Demi’s menu is bedecked with ingredients that embody global luxury: everything from Spanish turbot to Maine Belon oysters to osetra caviar to plantains and octopus. They are tasty, yes, but they’re less a reflection of terroir or merroir and more a reflection of jet fuel and sophisticated provisioning relationships. (And the octopus was, for us, the only real miss of the menu—its heavy, pork blood, wild rice, and red currant vinegar-based sauce squashed any of the mollusk’s own delicate flavor.)

Even most irritatingly, the blue cheese for Demi’s rhubarb-and-cheese course was sourced from Oregon when Minnesota has at least three strong blues and Wisconsin at least another four. The Upper Midwest is a stellar (and criminally undercelebrated) cheese region, and it feels like a slap in the face when local upscale restaurants overlook it in favor of the Pacific Northwest and Vermont.

Our rabbit might have been local, but when we asked about it, our server didn’t know its origin, promised to find out for us, and then failed to do so.

The morels hailed from the Pacific Northwest, too, and while there’s no shame in supplementing before your own region is producing luxury foragables, there are other options—our own recent walk in the woods near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, yielded balsam, swamp tea, and wintergreen, so there’s nothing stopping a restaurant of Demi’s means from connecting viscerally with the Upper Midwestern spring even before that first rush of mushrooms.

A good restaurant serves a delicious, memorable meal; a great restaurant does the same while kicking open the doors to a bigger story, often one that’s rooted in a sense of regional identity.

Roasting hazelnuts below the cheese coarse of Rogue Creamery smokey bleu with rhubarb, angelica, and rugbrøed / / Photo by Sam Ziegler

Section 5: I’m Just Here for the Food

The fact that Demi’s menu is so universal should be viewed as a blessing. Bring a friend with taste from nearly anywhere and they’ll be comforted, entertained, and well-fed by its offerings, which will resonate equally (and without much explanation) for a New Yorker, a Londoner, or a Muscovite. If you’ve dined at two- and three Michelin-starred restaurants, and are searching for a local equivalent (Minnesota isn’t a Michelin-evaluated region), Demi’s food and service will scratch that particular culinary itch.

Service at Demi / /Photo by Becca Dilley

Indeed, with the possible exception of certain chef’s table experiences (Corner Table and Kaiseki Furukawa come to mind), there really isn’t any other spot in Minnesota to enjoy such a thoughtful, widely sourced, full-court-press of delightful food. We thought our Iowa wagyu beef striploin and kohlrabi ravioli was remarkably good, the meat tender, savory, and perfectly seared and seasoned. It’s the kind of dish you really can’t get anywhere else in Minnesota—just four or five mouthfuls of world-class steak amidst a whirlwind tour of other flavors, here for just a moment, and then gone but not to be forgotten.

There are numerous restaurants in Minneapolis-St. Paul (and beyond—Duluth, Rochester, even the Gunflint Trail) that reflect the region where we live. But in terms of a truly royal, extensive, cosmopolitan tasting menu, nothing else in the state can hold a candle to the skill and flavor of what’s being offered at Demi, and that’s a gift for anyone looking to have a memorable meal in a tasteful setting.