Here to stay


Fugaise still going strong after two years

With numerous restaurants closings in the area, a trend that doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, food bloggers and industry insiders continue to speculate about who’s going down next. White tablecloth establishments, most vulnerable during economic downturns, are easy targets for scrutiny.

Well, don’t wait around for the other shoe to drop at Fugaise, the upscale French eatery at 308 E. Hennepin Ave. Although gossip hounds haven’t spared the restaurant, “Fugaise is nowhere near to closing,” says Chef-owner Don Saunders, who opened it in 2005. In fact, Fugaise just celebrated its two-year anniversary, an impressive feat in the restaurant business.

It might seem like a challenge for a restaurant that charges $24–$32 for a dinner entrée to fill seats every night. One of the ways Fugaise beats the odds is through its cultivation of a regular, neighborhood clientele. In fact, the neighborhood regulars have rallied around Fugaise in the face of any rumors about its pending demise, according to General Manager Dan McHale. He says that he recognizes at least a handful of the diners that come through the door each day as repeat customers.

The location does have some handicaps, however. Northeast is better known for the beer-and-a-shot crowd than for adventurous diners that regularly drop $80 on a seven-course tasting menu. Fugaise also lacks the hotel guest clientele that many other Downtown restaurants have to fall back on. Furthermore, its dining area has no windows and no outdoor seating.

In spite of these drawbacks, choosing the near-Northeast location was very deliberate for Saunders and McHale, who liked the neighborhood, and the gamble seems to have paid off. With faithfuls like the outstate couple that drives in for dinner at least once a week, or the man that eats lunch there every Thursday, Fugaise proves that fine dining has a captive audience in the Twin Cities. The restaurant does book some corporate events and traveling clientele (due in part to national attention from Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines), but it’s the neighborhood regulars that have really kept the doors open at Fugaise.

As for the food, Fugaise has never backed down from Saunders’ imaginative and bold cuisine. This fall’s menu is offering a frog’s legs starter with triple crème risotto ($14) and kangaroo au poivre entrée ($32). While other restaurants are playing it safe with meat-and-potatoes-style menus, the customers at Fugaise have come to expect something adventurous. With some of them coming in weekly or more, Saunders has to stay on top of his menu changes or he’ll hear about it when his customers are forced to try the same dish twice. “It’s definitely not true that you can’t experiment [with culinary creations] in Minneapolis,” he says.

Saunders also has a penchant for cooking with the seasons, and because customers respond eagerly to that, he’s been able to stay true to it. “I don’t know if it’s because people are well-educated [about eating seasonally] or if it’s just a feeling. I do it because I like to eat like that.” Saunders recalls one account with an heirloom tomato salad that was being served through early September, until a sudden cold snap in the weather came along. “The day it got cold, I didn’t sell one salad.”

Fugaise has also offered a lunch service since its doors first opened. Most people expect lunch to be more casual, and the Fugaise menu reflects it, with affordably priced entrées like a gruyere-stuffed burger ($10) or scallops with provencal vegetables and garlic custard ($13).

Prix fixe menus, or “tasting tours” as they are referred to in house, are also pretty popular at Fugaise.

As for the volatility of the restaurant business, Saunders says he was prepared for that. “It’s frustrating. There’s a lot of speculation [about us closing], but people have no idea about the financials. Slow growth was built into our business plan.”