F. Scott Fitzgerald would love dining at La Belle Vie (510 Groveland; 612/874-6440), now relocated in Minneapolis from Stillwater where it established its reputation as one of the state’s best restaurants. Fitzgerald’s old haunt, The Commodore, is now condominiums, and its legendary bar and restaurant is closed, but Minneapolis’s 510 Groveland was a contemporary showplace of its own.
While Fitzgerald and Great Northern Railroad tycoon Ralph Budd were living at the spiffy Commodore in the roaring 1920s, Minneapolis Symphony conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos and other luminaries were living at the equally upscale 510 Groveland a few years later. More than 20 years ago, a formal restaurant opened here with much success using the address as its name. The 510 closed recently, however, to make way for La Belle Vie.
The elegant dining rooms are mostly unchanged, but co-owner/chef Tim McGee has introduced new furniture in both the dining room and the terrific new bar/lounge at the entrance to the building. (This had been a lounge for the residents and was occasionally used for restaurant receptions in the past.) The new bar and its chic rooms not only serve drinks and provide extra seating when the restaurant is crowded, but it also serves its own distinctive menu.
Food and drink at La Belle Vie are not cheap. Chef McGee and his staff present a menu of serious formal French cuisine in a contemporary fashion, and this is no restaurant for timid diners. Meals are not simple, flavors are not always familiar, and preparation is not often traditional. On my first visit I had a glass of wine and an order of three small artisan cheese sandwiches from the bar menu. The tasty sandwiches came with gazpacho in a demitasse cup and a charming small salad garnish. The service was attentive and friendly, and I looked forward to returning another evening for a full meal in the dining room.
I came back on a Friday evening when the restaurant was packed. I had to wait 45 minutes past the reservation time—but the fault was mine, not the restaurant’s (which bought me a glass a wine for my wait). My point is that it is not a good idea to dine at this, or any of the Twin Cities’ best restaurants, at prime time on a weekend. Even if you get seated on or about your reservation time, the kitchen and the chefs are under maximum pressure. The best chefs, of course, can handle this pressure, but I think it is just common sense to know that you won’t get their best effort, the kind you would receive when the restaurant is not full. At this level of cuisine, this may make a difference. Pick a weekday, or a very early or very late seating on the weekend.
There is a tasting menu with three alternatives, and an a la carte menu. The portions on the latter menu are larger, and you may choose exactly what you want. But I chose the tasting menu, which began with a complimentary amusee of a plump oyster covered with Bloody Mary sorbet. My first course was a blue marlin carpaccio with chilled shrimp consommé, sweet shrimp, and a dollop of osetra caviar. I know many of my readers love sushi and other uncooked seafood and meats, but I do not. The chef agreed to sear the fish, and I found the flavors delicious.
(For a Russian caviar aficionado as I am, it was a rare chance to taste these “fish eggs” in Minnesota. The larger eggs, the beluga, are no longer imported, and will be illegal to serve in 18 months. The smallest eggs, the sevruga, as well as the osetra, will continue to be available, but why would someone want to pay $30–$75 an ounce for a delicacy that has been compromised by industrial and radioactive materials dumping in the Caspian Sea? In short, we have to get over it, and learn to love the many fine domestic caviars now becoming available.)
My next course was a stunning lobster and pumpkin cappelletti with coral sabayon and black truffles. This is not, I will note, available at Manny’s or Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The caramelized and poached duck foie gras with Forelle pear braised in Banyuls, which followed, was one of the most resonating sensual experiences of the evening, not only because of its flavors, but also because of the duck liver’s unique texture. A roasted squab with cauliflower croquette, golden raisins, and Moroccan spices was excellent, but the squab arrived red in the center. This was not a mistake from the kitchen because McKee is one of the many top chefs today who likes to serve meat, fish, and poultry cooked as little as possible. The quality of the produce purchased by La Belle Vie is so high that there is little cause for concern about food safety, but I just happen to be someone who likes his food cooked.
The very rare squab did not work for me, but the rare grilled lamb ribeye (with artichokes and a fallen porcini soufflé) did. The final official course was a smoked chocolate soup with olive oil ice cream and a date-fig crouton. Complimentary petits fours came at the end.
The five-course tasting is $65 plus tax and tip. Wines and other beverages are extra. A matched wine flight for this meal is $45. The six-course tasting is $80 plus tax and tip. The wine flight is $55. Judging from the superb vegetables that accompanied my meal, the vegetarian tasting (not on the menu, but also available), is probably an excellent experience.
Everything on the a la carte menu reads as an interesting presentation of a talented chef. I will order the Shetland (Scottish) salmon; the pumpkin tagliatelle with blue prawns, lobster coral, and black truffles; and the fritto misto of frog’s legs, crayfish, and haricot verts on another occasion.
McGee and his collaborators are creating a special and rarified dining experience in a lovely old space. The service is exceptional, with many servers from other top Twin Cities restaurants now on staff here. I recommend that you try the bar and its menu first. There are no scholarships available. You will have the best ingredients skillfully prepared, and you will pay the price.
Meanwhile, Over on Eat Street . . .
The Nicollet Avenue South “Eat Street” neighborhood has another new restaurant, and this time it’s not ethnic. The Bad Waitress (2 E. 26th Street; 612/872-7575) is a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch until 3 p.m., and wine and pastries until midnight. If the name is off-putting, it needn’t be. There are no true servers here. You line up at the counter, fill out an order, take a seat, and your order is delivered some time later. The good news here is that the kitchen uses fresh and quality ingredients at very reasonable prices, especially as tipping is not required. The bad news is that the menu, although large in its breakfast, salad, and sandwich selection, does not offer much that is original or unusual. When it does try, as in the grilled Rachel that I had, it used a roasted red pepper aoili instead of the usual dressing, and it did not work for me thus.
Another Triumph for Lucia
Minnesota’s fine cuisine chef and pioneer Lucia Watson has done it again, opening Lucia’s Bakery and Take Home (1428 W. 31st Street; 612/825-9800) in Uptown next to her superb restaurant and adjacent wine bar.
Watson has created a space reminiscent of rural France, charming and informal, offering wonderful treats to consume on the spot or take home, all at very reasonable prices. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or snack anytime.
The bakery offers cold and delicious gourmet salads by weight, plus two delicious soups each day by the cup or bowl, a vegetarian three-bean chili with corn bread and habanero sour cream, and a beef and mushroom Stroganoff with egg noodles. All French-style sandwiches use her own fresh bread (sourdough, cracked wheat, semolina, baguette, and farm grain). Breakfast items include made-to-order crepes and frittatas. At 4:30 p.m., if you order ahead, you can pick up a whole roasted chicken with herbs ($10), meatloaf slices, and parmesan polenta with sauce. Watson also offers free parking in the crowded Uptown neighborhood.
Dinner at Last at Crema
The folks at Crema Cafe (34th & Lyndale Avenue South; 612/824-3868) have been itching to complete their kitchen remodeling so they can offer bistro dinners at their popular South Side restaurant (which is also the home of Sonny’s ice cream). Chef Mike Ryan has been ready to expand his small but delicious lunch menu to full-course evening meals. The wine and beer license hasn’t quite arrived, and the remodeling continues, but soup, salad, pasta, and pizza are now available in the evening to go with the world-famous ice creams and sorbets, their homemade pastries, and espresso and fine teas. Owners Ron Siron and Carrie Gustafson promise a much larger menu soon, but Ryan’s creative soups and tagliatelle with Brussels sprouts and pancetta are already worth the trip.