By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun
3:40 PM EST, February 18, 2011
Late last November, Demi showed up, fully formed, on the basement level of Crush, like Athena having just burst out of Zeus' head. It sounded like a trick — that Demi was just a ruse to get overflow diners from Crush to move into an undesirable seating area. But this new lower level, we were told, was not "Demi at Crush," or any other kind of halfway gimmick; Demi and Crush, it was promised, were two separate restaurants: Crush above, Demi below.
The truth is there is a tiny bit of blurring, some of it inevitable, at least for the short term. Crush and Demi have the same phone number, and if you try to walk directly down into the Demi area without first consulting the Crush hostess, she may repeat, "I'll be with you in a minute" in a way that makes the color rush to your cheeks. And if you order a drink at Demi, it will come from the bar on the main level at Crush.
But Demi has its own attitude and its own menu. Demi also has its own alarmingly young and very talented chef, Tae Strain, who was selected by Dan Chausit, the owner and head chef of Crush, to open Demi. Strain helped Chausit open Crush but soon moved up to New York City, where he worked under Brad "The Prince of Pork" Farmerie at the lauded Public. Back now in Baltimore, Strain is going to be one to watch. So is Demi.
The new basement dining space is anything but an afterthought. The major improvement has been the removal of the wall that separated what was an overflow seating area from the building's lower-level kitchen. Now in place is a streamlined but cozy 32-seat dining area, crisp-looking, with wood floors and cloths on tables. Eight "chef's stools" are perched at a long counter with a full view into a sparkling and well-tempered kitchen. And from this vantage point, it's clear: Tae Strain is on his own, working with only the able assistance of a single cook, Bailey Meyers.
It's a pleasure to watch Strain and Meyers work together. You'll notice, when you're placing your order with your waiter, that Strain and Meyers have their antennae up, that they're already anticipating their next tandem move. You'll also notice that, except for the exchange of banter, they truly are operating entirely separately from the Crush kitchen crew, even with their own mise en place.
It would be no pleasure at all, of course, if the food at Demi weren't any good. But it's very, very good. Attention-demanding, satisfyingly good. When we visited, Demi was offering a 13-item small plates menu. Three of us managed to work our way through 11 of them, and we were pleasantly stuffed and dazzled by the end of the meal. The menu builds logically, from plates that serve as salads or appetizers to those that serve as entrees. It also builds in dramatic effect and intensity.
At the beginning, there is a simple and refreshing plate of shaved beets, roasted carrots and goat's cheese served with candied pecans and drizzled with orange miso. A second salad steps up the drama, but just a bit — an artful plating of prosciutto di Parma, poached pear, pumpkin seed, guava and Maytag blue cheese. Already, you've learned that Strain wants you to pay attention to, and make full use of, every ingredient on his plate. Everything's there for a reason, and in proportion.
Drama comes later, with Strain's signature dish — a six-minute egg perched on pureed cauliflower and topped with a lattice-like piece of Parmesan toast — as well as with a plate of ahi tuna topped with Sriracha aioli and poised atop blocks of jasmine rice, all resting in a gentle vanilla soy broth.
Intensity comes even later: a maple-glazed pork belly, served with sesame-seed spaetzle and snow peas; smoked mozzarella and mushroom ravioli, tossed with toasted shallots and tiny, translucent slices of red grapes, a testament to patient knife skills.
Strain promises frequent changes to the menu, but if the crab-crusted salmon is on his menu when you visit, grab it. Served over a mild curry of kabocha squash and heightened by a spray of pickled carrots, this would work perfectly well as a light entree for one person. And for sheer beauty, nothing beat a pairing of jumbo shrimp and fennel arancini plated with cilantro pesto and finished with a richly enveloping chermoula, a piquant sauce native to North Africa.
Off notes are harmless, but you notice them. If they sound especially picky, it's because Demi, and Strain, are playing at the pro level. Maytag blue feels like an unimaginative choice. Two plates include crackers from a box — not a sin, exactly — but it feels like Demi should be making its own. Dessert, poached in part from the Crush menu, is an afterthought.
Demi could work in a few grace notes, too — you expect an amuse bouche here, and maybe a palate cleanser, but none come. Still, there's enough grace coming from the kitchen to more than compensate.
Where: 501 E. Belvedere Ave.
Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner
Prices: Small plates: $8-$15
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor:✭]
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