sitting in coach: spoon and stable [soapbox sunday]
You may have heard of a new little joint called Spoon and Stable. It is located on the north side of the warehouse area of downtown. Lots of people have been talking about it, to say the very least.
In case you have been in the Maldives since August, let me briefly fill you in. Spoon and Stable is the brain child of renowned chef Gavin Kaysen who returns to Minnesota via New York and has recently rubbed the elbows of the likes of Daniel Boulud. Now him you’ve heard of.
You know what I really like about Gavin Kaysen? He put all these rumors definitively to rest, ripping critics to shreds in interview after interview by saying that the hype doesn’t mean a reservation is unattainable. In fact, in many Q & A’s, Kaysen has come off as pointedly irritated that the restaurant has gained a “don’t even bother” reputation (One review by the Star Tribune is actually titled “Get in line for Spoon and Stable”). Instead of reveling in this coveted unbalance of supply and demand, Kaysen welcomes last minute dinner plans and walk-in customers.
“You know, the bar is open every night for walk-ins, there’s 30 seats in the bar. We still have availability – everybody in the press has written that we’re sold out, sold out, sold out. We’re not.” – Kaysen to Kare 11
That sentiment was reassuring when I had to find a table for four to mark my dad’s 69th birthday. I had been seriously anticipating my first meal at this restaurant, in part because I have experienced Daniel Boulud first-hand. Spoon and Stable was on the wish list of everyone involved in the celebratory dinner, so I made a phone call, with that quote ringing in my ears. I was reassured that although reservations were full, walk-ins are always possible and that a portion of the space is left open as first-come, first-served dining. My parents seemed open to winging it, even if it meant sitting at the bar, and that is exactly what we happily did.
Upon entering, seven hosts, mostly female, greeted us in a detached manner as it became evident that they were only concerned with who else would be walking in behind us mere mortals. They looked through us. I resolved to continue decidedly with a positive attitude and zero expectations.
Drinks were a strong point – each of us praised our cocktails which were prepared with dazzling professionalism, and were certainly a treat for the eyes. My whiskey sour (pictured above) was creamy and the alcohol well-balanced, however the spicing was too much, giving it the impression of an over-spiced winter beverage rather than a unique twist on a classic. The sazerac was just as balanced, with the absinthe holding it together nicely. The bar itself was classy but altogether unimpressive: a tamely stocked bar containing nothing particularly unique or interesting. And for $13, far better cocktails exist, even in lowly Minneapolis.
Spoon and Stable has taken pride in the fact that they serve their entire dinner menu in the bar area. All this in addition to a sizable bar-specific menu means that being seated at the bar actually affords more choices, not less.
First courses were a highlight, although the artichoke giardinera was noticeably missing from the charcuterie plate. What was present, however, was very good. Pickled mustard seed coated in reduced concord grape was an enjoyable caviar trompe l’oeil and was perfectly executed to boot. The wide selection of meat was throughly explained by the server who delivered it. The salami and the duck braunschweiger worked excellently with the accoutrements.
When the cavatelli with sweet breads, romanesco, hazelnuts, and sage arrived ($20), it was a monochromatic disappointment. Not being one to favor form over function, however, I dug right in. What began as a bit of a let down quickly revealed many inexcusable flaws. First, there were four remnants of romanesco – the ingredient we were frankly most excited about – each about the size of a pea. Not only would more have added color and texture, it would have broken up the density of the starch-laden pasta. The heaviness could be blamed on the whole wheat, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair, as plenty of successful whole wheat pastas exist.
The balance of the sauce was appealing, although the sage was beat out by heavy cream and parmesan which generally lacked direction. What few sweetbreads that were present were unequivocally overcooked. I found myself chewing and chewing, all the while becoming more surprised.
The pot roast (hold the optional foie gras) had no serious flaws, but the composition of the dish left us befuddled. Onions and a small amount of mushrooms were the only additions to the brick of meat plus broth, poured tableside. It surely did not fulfill more than the protein food group, and while it was tasty, the overall dish was not a cohesive concept and did not earn its $27 price tag.
Also off the bar menu was another success, duck meatloaf sliders on brioche. Again, the appealing ingredients to balance the richness of the sandwiches – tamarind and celery – were all but lost. That being said, the duck was an excellent texture and the buttery bread hearty enough to stand up to the meatloaf.
Desert is a must-do in our family and we decided on two between our group of four. The birthday boy took the lemon curd mousse ($10) and liked it. The lemon was intense and the plate was beautifully constructed. It was not overly sweet, but it also was not a very generous portion. My date (a chef) ordered the chocolate and coconut ($10) partially because of the pastry chef’s reputation and also because the bartender supported our choice in saying, “that one is my favorite”.
We sat at the bar in a state I will call quiet consternation. I eventually said, “I really wanted to like this place.” My counterpart was still fuming over the sweetbreads. The manager dropped by but only looked at or talked to my parents who were pleased, for the most part, with their food. I thought about the glowing reviews, including some by people I know personally. What went awry?
The “aha” moment came when staff dropped our deserts and flitted away. We were sitting in coach. Surely no one in the posh dining room would be left without any explanation of ingredients or meal construction, devoid of any personal connection to the service. Serving a full dining menu in the bar requires dedicated staff with adequate time and training. Our experience of the zone-defense method with fresh faces darting about, often holding the wrong plates and seldom offering any exposition, was not adequate for a menu style and caliber of food which demand additional information.
My hypothesis was confirmed in part when I turned to ask our server what the chocolate and coconut plate before us consisted of. He was gone. A deconstructed ho-ho cut at and angle sat beside three shiny lumps of brown, a pile of white powder, and what smelled like coconut ice cream. I wanted to eat it, badly, but I wanted to know what I was consuming.
Elements were very good, like a caramel ganache and the mystery powder. The cakes, although appearing rich in chocolate character, were surprisingly bland.
Sitting in coach at one of the hottest restaurants in town doesn’t warrant lesser service; our check wasn’t any lower than that of those in the dining room. Not holding a reservation and taking a gamble on dinner should hold more weight. After all, it doesn’t just mean we are poor planners, it also means we waited outside at restaurant open, bright-eyed and shivering with cold and anticipation.
Spoon and Stable makes the choice to serve their entire menu at the bar, but restaurants have bar menus for a reason. Of our four dishes, the ones from the full dining menu were actually the weakest, but the major downfall of this entire experience is that almost no one, besides our bartender whose attention was necessarily divided, served us, in the wholesome sense of the word. No one smiled at us. No one took notice that we were celebrating a birthday until after we had ordered a desert, despite a gift atop the bar.
Far from being written off as new-restaurant hype, the reaction to Spoon and Stable demonstrates some of the most polarizing attitudes in recent memory. And I find myself on the unexpected side of the fence.