Before writing this review, I went to demi twice. Once the week it opened and again last month for a media dinner. The media dinner was comped, so keep that in mind. That said, I'm pretty sure I'm being impartial, comped or no.
Demi (510 East Belvedere Avenue, (443) 278-9001), the small plates spot that opened last December in the basement-ish space at Crush, is not a restaurant for everybody. I probably wouldn't take my grandmother there, for instance. Or, say, someone who freaks out if his dinner includes anything more interesting than asparagus. For all of the rest of us, though, demi's arrival in Baltimore is good - great - news. This is a restaurant that is just ridiculously good.
My first visit to demi, last December, was kind of a surprise. Alicia, Mary and I decided to go out to dinner, just the three of us, and we found ourselves there, since we didn't have a reservation and Crush was busy. We weren't really prepared for our visit, so we didn't do a good job exploring the menu (or taking notes) but we did walk away totally impressed with the food, the concept and the service.
So when I got a chance to have dinner at demi again, this time with Liz, Rachel and Matt, Patti and Nakiya, I was all over it. We were there on a Monday night, when the restaurant itself is closed (but Crush is open upstairs), so we got extra special service from our (adorable) waiter, Michael, and fantastic access to Chef Tae Strain, who looks about twelve but cooks like he's been around the block more than a few times. Strain was at Crush way back when, then moved to NYC for a few years, but came back when Crush/demi owner Daniel Chaustit offered him the opportunity to go crazy at demi.
The two restaurants share an open kitchen (that is much more calm and collected than anything you're going to see on Kitchen Nightmares) and, incidentally, a drinks and wine list. That's all they share, though. Crush is delicious, but it's definitely more standard Baltimore restaurant fare. The food at demi is high concept, so if you like a side of intellectualism with your meal, you are in luck.
But if you prefer to eat without philosophizing, that's OK, too, since the food is also delicious. Think Richard Blais on Top Chef All-Stars, when he focused on flavor and making the customer happy, rather than during his original season of Top Chef, when he was more about cool technique for technique's sake.
We started our dinner with a course of rare ahi tuna on top of a crispy little cookie of jasmine rice in a dish of fragrant vanilla soy broth. Sriracha aioli added a very tiny bit of spice to the whole dish. I was skeptical about the broth - worried it might be too sweet or too vanilla-y, especially after getting a whiff of it. I was wrong, though. Paired with the surprising and perfect crunch of the rice, it was amazing. Already, dinner was different than anything else I'd eaten in Balitmore.
So different that I forgot to take a picture.
But moving on to the next course. This was when I really, really wished that Cooper was with me because the dish was so up his alley. It was a six minute egg paired with asparagus, cauliflower puree, a parmesan tuile, truffled toast and parsley oil:
In my notes, I wrote only one word: "ridiculous." I meant it in a good way. The egg was cooked perfectly, the parsley oil packed tons of flavor, the truffled bread was, well, truffly, but not so much that it overpowered the rest of the dish (and I know how hard it can be to restrain yourself with truffle oil). So the flavors were fantastic, but I think the star of this dish was probably the combination of textures. The combination of crunchy parmesan, creamy cauliflower and soft egg was just fantastic.
The next dish we tasted wasn't on the menu at the time, but a slightly modified version has made it onto the April menu. It was a seared diver sea scallop served with a rich miso butter, Brussels sprouts and shiitake mushroom:
The scallop was cooked perfectly - crusty on the outside and springy in the middle - and I love a perfectly cooked scallop. My favorite elements of this plate, though, were the bright green Brussels sprouts leaves, which had been just barely blanched, and the deep brownish red miso butter, which was an amazing savory addition to the whole dish.
After the scallop, Chef Strain brought us an intermezzo - a super refreshing spoonful of orange and red chilis, compressed cucumber, fennel, and shallots tossed with a yuzu vinaigrette. While doesn't usually serve intermezzos right now, he's got plans to play with them in the future. Good plans, if this one was any indication.
Our next course was a nod to the more traditional palates of Baltimore - the sous vide bistro steak with spicy fingerling potatoes, haricots verts and salsa verde, surrounded by spicy red pepper and chorizo oil:
The dish is fairly standard, though nicely done, and I definitely enjoyed the combination of the spicy chorizo oil and the acid of the salsa verde (which almost felt chimichurri-like to me). It's a safe bet for anybody who's a little bit nervous with "different" food.
After the steak, even though we were all absolutely stuffed, we managed to choke down a dessert of croissant bread pudding with golden raisins and creme anglaise:
I will eat creme anglaise on just about anything, so this was not a stretch for me (though apparently taking a decent picture WAS a stretch). The bread pudding was spongy and moist and overall, the dessert was a good one. In general, I'd rather try another savory course vs. dessert, but that's just my preference.
After dessert, the chef offered a final little goodbye with a spoonful of salted chocolate, raspberry granita and nutella powder (yes, nutella powder and yes, it was outrageously good). I managed to finish that off, as well, though by then I was verging on uncomfortable.
Overall, it was an an amazing, amazing meal. The service was stellar (as it had been on our first visit, when we weren't the only people in the place) and the food was surprising, complex without being gratuitously complicated, and most importantly, delicious. The company, of course, was fabulous, too - meals with bloggers are always entertaining.
Next time I go back, it'll likely be with my friends. Mike and Alicia have been a few times already and they loved it, and I'm anxious to eat there with our usual out-to-dinner group, so I can try even more dishes. Though it's a small plates concept, it's not really tapas. It would be easy enough to share a plate, but apparently people aren't approaching the menu that way - they're ordering their own. Three to five courses is probably about right for most adults (though I'm sure Cooper, Mike, Kyle and Bill could take down a few additional courses if they absolutely had to).
I'm just thrilled that a restaurant of this caliber and ambition has opened in Baltimore - and it's a bonus that it's practically down the street from my house. I know it's been booking up quickly and I hope that continues - demi deserves to be a huge success.