It's not quite like a secret club where you have to find a hidden door and give a password, but getting into Demi requires some know-how. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it's inside Crush restaurant on a lower level, and that you check in with the main hostess by the door.
You'll be led down a short flight of steps—glance to the right and you'll see the remains of the sliding board that once delighted a generation of kids when the place was Hess Shoes—into, voilà, Demi.
The word "demi" by definition usually means half or less than usual in size or power. But that's certainly not the case with this Demi, which opened in December.
The space may be small and windowless, but it offers warmth with wood floors, brick walls, white tablecloths, and a friendly wait staff. A vibrant painting adds a dash of color.
There are only about 32 seats and a smattering of stools at a chic black counter overlooking the busy open kitchen shared by both Crush and Demi. But Demi is a little powerhouse that will endear itself to you with its carefully edited menu of creative small plates that change often.
Executive chef Tae Strain has come up with clever interpretations of familiar foods, infusing them with some Asian touches along the way, like siracha aioli, lemongrass oil, and yuzu. But the ingredients are used minimally—a dab of purée, a squiggle of sauce, a scattering of tiny, chopped vegetables—so that not one flavor overpowers the others but serves as a complementary part of a whole.
If that sounds like some mathematical equation, perhaps it is. The chef is clearly going for the right balance in each dish.
On my first visit, our server advised my friend and me to get two plates apiece. We did, but we also added a third because I really wanted to try the pork belly, too. It was the right decision. You don't want to miss this ethereal slab of maple-glazed meat stacked on top of sesame-seed spaetzle with crisp-tender snow peas.
What's nice about Demi is that the plates aren't plopped on the table all at once as can happen at other tapas places. Here, delivery is paced, allowing you to savor your choices.
The first two dishes to arrive were an impressive introduction to Strain's cooking. I really liked the soothing red-pepper-and-coconut soup, which could stand on its own but got a nice boost from the lump crab cake set in the center of the liquid. The patty was topped with a green-apple slaw, so when you broke into the mound, the soup suddenly became enlivened with sweet crab and crunchy slaw drifting through the broth.
No matter where you sit, you are privy to the action in the kitchen. I watched as the cooks bent over the plates, fussing with each one as if dressing a child. Their food offspring showed the attention. A salad was delivered on a long white plate, divvied into three delicate piles of spring lettuces studded with slivers of poached pear, ribbons of prosciutto, chunks of blue cheese, and pumpkin seeds.
After a brief interval, the next two plates were set before us. The smoked mozzarella and mushroom ravioli were tender and delicious with bits of red grapes and toasted shallots tossed among the pasta. And the three diver sea scallops were the perfect foil to the chorizo polenta cakes underneath them. Add the teensy pineapple pieces and a splash of bacon aioli, and you're having a fiesta in your mouth.
With such success during this visit, could we possibly have a duplicate experience at another time? Easy answer. Yes. I went back about two weeks later with another friend.
There was no doubt that I was going to get the six-minute egg this time. I had been craving it ever since my last meal there. This is breakfast food getting dolled up for the evening.
The peeled soft-shell egg was perched atop a cauliflower purée with tiny buds of asparagus, a Parmesan crisp, and two toasted crostini with a whisper of truffle oil. My waiter gave some brief instructions: Cut the egg in the middle to allow the runny yolk to flavor the other contents, and save a crostini for mopping-up duties at the end. Yes and yes!
Our other starter plate featured shaved red and gold beets tossed with lettuce greens, roasted carrot cubes, goat cheese, candied pecans, and orange miso. It was almost too pretty to eat, but we did.
We moved on to two more dishes. The rosy ahi tuna was perched on fragrant jasmine rice with a most intriguing vanilla soy broth and the above-mentioned siracha aioli. And the bistro steak, cooked to a juicy medium rare, was a compact bundle of joy with a crispy potato-hash round and a smear of red-onion tomato jam.
Desserts are given as much thought as the savory dishes at Demi. They're portioned nicely, too: Most are about the size of a muffin. All are accompanied by local Taharka Brothers ice cream.
The blueberry almond sponge cake was chock full of fruit and perfectly matched to a tennis-ball mound of vanilla ice cream. An apple cake may make you think of fall, but this delicate moist round is a must for all seasons. It crackled with a crunchy topping and glowed in a sweet caramel sauce that worked fine with butter-pecan ice cream. The restaurant serves giant cups of coffee to go with these petite desserts.
The symbiotic relationship between Demi and Crush is working well and seems to keep both spaces filled. Even on a Thursday evening, we could only get a 6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. reservation at Demi. In this restaurant economy, thinking "out of the box" is paying off for them—and us.