How to Succeed in Business

café un deux trois
114 South Ninth St., Mpls.; 673-0686

un deux trois owner Michael Morse is alarmingly honest about what a restaurant can really accomplish: "There are only so many things you can do with a piece of fish, a piece of chicken."
Kristine Heykants
un deux trois owner Michael Morse is alarmingly honest about what a restaurant can really accomplish: "There are only so many things you can do with a piece of fish, a piece of chicken."

A friend of mine's longtime love is dumping him, because she says he's not successful enough. Successful! Enough! And he's a Fulbright scholar and a sweetheart whose biggest fault is falling for beautiful mean people. It makes my heart curdle--as if accolades from the greater world are something you can control like honesty, kindness, or hard work. As if every artist of the last 200 years hadn't proved that success is nothing but luck and faith. As if Van Gogh, a painter whose canvases sell for the most successful prices imaginable, as if Van Gogh's mom had stood at her son's pauper's grave beaming and saying: "Well, thank goodness that one's a success." As if Jessica Hahn, Gennifer Flowers, and Monica Lewinsky weren't all going to have better-funded biographies than José Saramago, Dario Fo, and Wislawa Szymborska--the Nobel-winning writers of the last three years.

I guess I should be used to it, the quick judgments and fickle hearts of people with calculators for eyes. After all, that 17th-century French quote factory La Rochefoucauld noted that most people judge men only by their success or fortune--and he died in 1680! Have we lost nothing in 300 years but powdered wigs, wooden teeth, and dropsy? Or am I overreacting? Maybe success is only fickle for the sad sacks I run with. Maybe there's some subset of the population that shows up for a first job and is immediately beset by paparazzi.

Success is obviously fickle in restaurants. Time and again I've seen mediocre--but brand-new--restaurants do gangbuster business and run circles around well-established better spots. And how many times have lovely little places succeeded, pulled up whole neighborhoods on their coattails, and been forced out by the increased property values they themselves helped create? Restaurants are a game that requires a philosopher's outlook to enjoy. Luckily, Michael Morse, the proprietor of downtown Minneapolis's café un deux trois, has just such a worldview: "A good percentage of our client base are people that have been real loyal to us for six and a half years, through the good times and the bad times. People who know that every time they come through that door I'm going to be there at that door, and I'm going to know what table they like and what dishes they like," said Morse when I caught up with him on the phone at a nearly quiet moment before un deux trois's busy lunch. "Like me or not--and certainly there are people that do, and certainly there are people that don't--everyone knows that when people come in this restaurant, Michael is there. I'm sure some people wish Michael wasn't there, but there I am."

He laughed at this last bit, not realizing how true this was, and how difficult it had been for me to sneak past him to sample the work of un deux trois's new chef, Vincent Francoual. Francoual has been with the bistro since July, and before that cooked in two of New York's hottest hotspots, the French-cuisine-based restaurants Le Bernardin and Lespinasse.

I managed to get past Morse on several occasions--with the aid of the cutest new wig and my biggest, most distracting friends--and was happy to find that Minneapolis's favorite bistro is just as successful as all get-out. The house standards were all in impeccable form--the beefy French onion soup ($5.50), the gorgeously tender Moules Marinières] (mussels steamed in white wine, garlic, and herbs, $9.50), and the perfect steak au poivre (a New York strip coated with briny green peppercorns, seared and served with a rich demi-glace and real, hand-cut french fries, $24).

More exciting still were the specials, presented on a little paper menu that accompanies the big paper menu (which itself complements the paper tablecloths and cups of crayons: Compulsive doodlers beware, temptation lies here). One night's appetizer was a humble-looking ragout of buttery black trumpet and shiitake mushrooms on a bed of creamy yellow grits ($7.50), whose quiet appearance concealed its luscious concentration of flavor.

Another, even more exquisite special was a timbale of chanterelle mushrooms with duck confit and a roasted garlic vinaigrette ($8.50). In this beautiful dish, fluffy ground chanterelles are molded into a cylinder, cut on the diagonal, served with more mushrooms and a generous dollop of duck confit, and finished with a slightly piquant sauce that offsets the richness of the duck and timbale. In addition to being so tasty, this dish gratified me on a nice, chef's-envy level: I'm all for fresh items simply prepared, but this is the sort of flourish that reminds you what separates the chefs from the cooks.

Fish specials, as expected, stood out as well: a braised grouper pot au feu ($18.50) with tiny carrots, quarter-sized turnips and a buttery parsnip puree was simple, wintry, and perfectly done. Pan-seared ahi tuna with Yukon Gold potatoes ($21) was another perfect piece of fish, brittle outside, silken within, and served with a smoky, slightly acrid kaffir lime leaf vinaigrette which made the oft-seen fish pleasantly surprising.

Desserts were good, particularly a deeply flavored chocolate mousse ($5), but overall they could have been better or more original. A tarte Tatin ($6) I tried twice was particularly disappointing. The crust was soggy and the apples didn't have any of the caramel topping for which the dessert is famous.

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