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Free Range

Demi

Restaurant-within-a-restaurant offers a stimulating experience

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Demi

510 E. Belvedere Ave., [443] 278-9001, opentable.com/demi

More at weekly.citypaper.com

It doesn’t look like a chicken wing, this dainty portion of bird, silky fine and resting in a pool of sauce the color of roasted oranges. But close your eyes, sample a portion of chicken and sauce, and in your mouth, it becomes a chicken wing, fiery on mild, salty and fresh, weirdly arresting, but familiar. Nibs of celery and a slick of bleu cheese add to the illusion of the dish formally described on the menu as “Braised chicken, blue cheese puree, compressed celery, ‘hot sauce’” ($12). It’s clever, to be sure, but it works.

The chicken demonstrates the kinds of culinary games played at Demi, the restaurant within a restaurant, or more specifically, dining room within a restaurant, at Dan Chaustit’s Crush in Belvedere Square.

Despite its location in the lower level of Crush, demi is very much its own animal, boasting its own kitchen and executive chef (Tae Strain, who worked at Crush before a stint in New York), its own Facebook page (there’s no mention of demi on Crush’s web site), and its own menu, with no reciprocal crossover with Crush. In demi, you eat from demi’s menu.

Time will tell if this will be a profitable move, but it has potential as a smart one. Having two dining rooms with two menus allows different work under the same roof and encourages experimentation without the risk of opening a new restaurant. It also gives regular customers a way to patronize a favored establishment, but enjoy two distinct experiences. And more visits, of course, equals more business.

The restaurant’s Facebook entry defines demi as “a small plates driven restaurant concept,” and “conceptual” is probably the best way to describe the dozen or so small plates that demi offers nightly. Diners are encouraged to order two apiece, and the staff deftly paces each round of plates. Each dish on the menu, arranged from lighter salads to more intense entrée-style dishes, is presented in a de rigueur list of ingredients that gives little hint of what is to come.

Some arrangements are logical. The combination of carpaccio and truffle oil, for example, is ubiquitous enough in fine dining rooms these days that “charred New York strip carpaccio, truffled mushroom emulsion, pear salad” ($11) is what you expect: paper thin slices of rare beef carrying the essence of woozy, woodsy truffles. It is completely satisfying, if not very exciting. Better is a fat slab of pork belly ($14), equal amounts of fat and meat, lightly lacquered in a maple glaze that only adds to the pork’s richness and with a preparation that makes the accompanying sesame seed spaetzle seem the logical choice of starch. And “veal tenderloin, potato hash, red onion tomato jam”($15), though similarly straightforward, gives a new appreciation for meat and potatoes by using meltingly soft slices of veal draped over crispy potato hash in a carnivore version of nigiri.

Other dishes require more concentration. What appear to be five sea scallops on a white rectangular plate are really three scallops and two fat discs of polenta studded with chorizo ($15). The dabs of bacon aioli and nuggets of compressed pineapple that complete the dish suggest unexpected associations, like Hawaiian pizza, rather than a familiar seafood dish like bacon-wrapped scallops.

There are also dishes that send you fumbling around the table for a spare menu. Is it crab or shrimp in the seafood cake sprinkled with green apple and surrounded like an island by slightly acidic red pepper and coconut soup ($15)? (It’s crab.) What is that floral quality in the seared tuna ($13)? (Jasmine rice and a dash of vanilla in the sauce.) And wasn’t the six-minute egg plate ($9) supposed to have cauliflower? (Turns out it is a bed for the egg, which is cooked to the consistency of aspic and graced with a crispy, lacy frico of Parmesan.)

The kitchen at demi turns out lovely bread (witness the anise-scented toasts on the egg plate and a too-small bread basket of focaccia for the table), but mediocre desserts. Only a moist bread pudding served with pumpkin ice cream (the flavor rotates) ($8) made any positive impression of the four desserts tasted. Servers are professional, patient with questions, and eager to explain anything unclear about the restaurant’s concept.

Some folks will find demi precious, and rightly so. Demi is all about the details in a performance, from the dining room’s moody dark hues to the open kitchen with bar seating around it to the trompe l’oeil effects of the food presentation. Occasionally all the different components overwhelm instead of balancing like a well-formed equation. And it’s possible to leave the restaurant slightly puzzled as to exactly what it was you just ate. But if you geek out on Top Chef, if you want to really think about your food as you enjoy it, if you want to watch a chef and his staff at work, demi might be just the spot to feed your head as well as your stomach.

Demi is open for dinner Tuesday–Saturday.

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