La Fougasse
5601 W. 78th St., Bloomington; (952) 835-0126
Hours: lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. daily; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m.Sunday-Thursday, 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

What the heck is a fougasse? Ooh ooh ooh, ask me! Okay. A fougasse is a Provençal style of yeast bread made with olive oil. It bears a family resemblance to focaccia, and it derives from the same root word. It can be made in a variety of flavors from savory (pork cracklings, Gruyère) to sweet (powdered sugar, candied fruits). It doesn't look like focaccia; it looks more like a big baked pretzel. But then it doesn't look exactly like a pretzel, because it's French, and fougasse bakers worth their salt develop their own sexy, fashiony take on the thing; fougasses are traditionally cut and stretched before baking, so they come out looking like ladders, or acorns, or statues by Brancusi.

Yay, yay for me. I get a gold star. Wanna know what else I know? Well, La Fougasse is the new restaurant at the Hotel Sofitel Minneapolis in Bloomington, it has a pan-northern-Mediterranean theme with a Provençal accent, and it even has some national significance: Once La Fougasse gets up to speed, Hotel Sofitel plans to change the fancy restaurant in each of its hotels to a La Fougasse.

Next question: Are there fougasses at La Fougasse? You bet your sweet olives there are! Actually, the fougasses are great. Two are served at the beginning of every meal, a plain one, dusted with salt, and a dark, meaty one made with kalamata olives. Served warm on cutting boards and just crying out for hand-handling (tearing off chunks of fougasse is quite satisfying), the stuff has a nice resilient character, and a pleasant chewy aspect. Really, a fougasse is so sturdy it seems to cry out for a beer, but I always ended up pairing it with one of the restaurant's signature apéritifs, which worked out fine. An orange-rosemary kir ($8.50) made with white wine, a splash of blood-orange purée, and a bit of fresh rosemary floating in the glass had an unforgettable taste; the dark flavor of blood oranges with the fragrance of rosemary seemed uniquely Provençal. A rosé pêche ($5.50) was a less charming, rosé wine with a bit of peach flavoring--a little too wine-cooler for me.

Apéritifs lead one to appetizers (by way of apparatchiks, appellate courts, and appendectomies, by my dictionary), and most of the appetizers here are served on lazy-Susan-footed "appetizer trees." One gets six little plates per tree, which is sized to serve two. (You can't get a tree for three or tree for six; you must get three trees for six. If three trees are on the road to St. Ives and meet a man with seven wives, how many appetizers are there? Send in the specified number of box tops for valuable prizes. No dozing! There will be a quiz.)

The Mediterranean appetizer tree ($19.90) featured a number of delectable little things, such as orange-infused grape leaves; a textbook-perfect goat-cheese bruschetta; roasted red peppers wrapped in prosciutto; plump, cold mussels in escabèche (that way of serving poached or fried seafood in any number of garlic-touched vinaigrettes); and a delicious ragout of wild mushrooms and caramelized vegetables served in a beautiful little cylinder.

Pick the Provençal tasting tree ($17) and you'll regret it. Yes, you'll net a very good onion, black olive, and anchovy pissaladière (an oil-crust pizza), but you'll also receive greasy frogs' legs and a pretty-to-look-at-but-soggy-to-eat molded pyramid of stewed tomatoes, tapenade, and cheese spread. There are two large, treeless appetizers: fried vegetables ($8.25) and a light, altogether respectable calamari plate ($8.95), distinguished especially by the surprise presence of tender deep-fried artichoke hearts and sweet, tangy, marvelous fried lemon slices.

Were there more moments of deep-fried lemon surprise, La Fougasse would be a treasure. As it is, the long stretch to dessert is fraught with peril. I had some dismal, dismal salads at La Fougasse. The worst was of thinly sliced fennel, carrots, and celery tossed in a grainy, whitish puzzlement and crowned with slices taken from some old tuna steak or other that got seared for some reason. You know how rare tuna is the color of rubies or claret? The rare part of this tuna was the brownish color of baked apples. Simple mesclun (mixed baby greens) with chèvre and pine nuts ($7.95) was so swamped with balsamic vinegar it looked like someone had poured motor oil on the plate.

Entrées hit the high highs of the fougasses and the low lows of the salads. Two delights I found included a perfectly cooked fillet of sea bass ($17.50). The fillet, sealed up in one of those razor-thin, so-very-French crusts, arrived surrounded by a pool of rich, buttery saffron sauce; beside it sat a precious little two-layer cake of plain, buttery rice and simple, garlic-sautéed fresh spinach. Moroccan chicken ($14.95) arrived at table wearing the clay dunce cap of a tagine; once it was lifted, a heady smell of lemons and honey took over the table. I'm happy to report that this bird was nothing short of dreamy. Little roast slices of lemons off to one side proved a perfect counterpoint to the chicken.

Yet twice I endured bouts with the watery, too salty, once dreadfully overcooked "Bouillabaisse de Marseille" ($28.95), which contains a broth so pallid it tastes like stone soup and arrives with an acrid, ice-cold rouille that engenders bitterness wherever it alights. Also: Why the vast, shallow bowls that ensure the stuff reaches room temperature before a quarter of it can be sampled? Twice too I had unfortunate run-ins with the despised oven-baked duck with olives ($18.95), an anise-accented, overcooked, dense, greasy insult to avians. Steak and potatoes--or rather, ribeye Niçoise with garlic pomme purée ($24.95)--was fine.

Phew! I've been waiting to put that unpleasantness behind us and move on into the conflict-free world of La Fougasse's enchanting desserts. Chocolate-mousse aficionados will be happy to learn that La Fougasse has one of the very best mousses in town. The stuff is served inside a teardrop-shaped chocolate cup, the chocolate container topped with whipped cream, the plate bathed in a subtle, pearly orange sauce, the whole jewel box of it topped with a pair of white-and-dark spiral-patterned chocolate batons--sigh. Fanciful and elegant, this mousse ($5.95) united potent chocolate with buoyant orange sauce and had forks flying in from every quarter. The lemon tart ($5.25) is as pure, buttery, and lemony as could be. A peach and chèvre tart ($5.95) was unusual and delicious--a buttery tart shell filled with peach quarters, surrounded by a sweetened chèvre custard. The whole thing was broiled until it got a bubbled, blackened top, creating an overall effect that was a little bit sweet, a little bit sharp, a little bit roasty--all very nice. But when paired with a vanilla-lavender ice cream, an ice cream so strong with vanilla it almost tasted alcoholic, the combined effect was nothing short of striking.

I found myself liking La Fougasse most during dessert, the restaurant's strongest suit. I grew to appreciate the dining rooms, which struck me as a sort of French take on Alice in Wonderland. The childish touch seems particularly appropriate when you consider the service, which seems most like a valiant effort in the face of full employment. The servers I had were all very, very young, and while they seemed to be well trained in certain niceties--such as removing and replacing silverware between courses--they didn't really seem to have any kind of deep familiarity with the ritual. Those I had tended to disappear for 30 minutes at a stretch, and one night the server's assistants and I embarked together on an improvisational comedy: Abandoned by my server and wanting to track down a forgotten dessert or return a plate, I'd catch a busboy's eye and raise my eyebrows. He'd catch my eye, smile winningly, and saunter past beguilingly. I'd catch another busboy's eye and make that universal hand-at-shoulder-height gesture for 'Help!' He'd catch my eye, wink, and wave back. In retrospect, I'm glad they didn't call the Bloomington police and have me arrested for attempting to corrupt minors.

If they had, I think I'd have used my time in the hoosegow to figure out the one thing about La Fougasse that still troubles me: Indeed, I know what a fougasse is, but who is La Fougasse for? Hotel guests, of course; Breedin' Prairie residents who don't like to drive (now if that isn't an oxymoron...). But if La Fougasse is one of the best restaurants in that quadrant of the suburbs--better than Kincaid's, as good as Ciao Bella (but not as young and buzz-y)--and it's not as good as a dozen restaurants north of Lake Street, does it make any sound if it falls in the forest? I told you there would be a quiz.

TABLEHOPPING:

MATZO-LESS, TAKE 2: Avid Tablehopping fans will remember last week's high drama, when Matzo-less in Minneapolis, a recent transplant to these Twin Towns, couldn't find a bowl of matzo-ball soup to meet his expectations.

Now, teach a man to fish and he will have fish for a lifetime, but ask a food critic a question and she'll stare dissolutely out the window, wishing the chickadees would run and fetch a turkey sandwich from Buon Giorno. Keeping that well-worn old saw in mind, Matzo-less asked not what I could do for him, but went out and did a thorough investigative study of local matzo balls, finally alighting on the Crossroads Delicatessen & Bake Shop, in Minnetonka, about which he reported, "OH GOD!!!!" And later: "I would have to say that next to my Bubbie's, Crossroads' MBS [matzo-ball soup] was about the best I've enjoyed."

Funnily enough, four exclamation points and a favorable comparison to Grandma was exactly the thing to keep me from further hectoring the wildlife about their unwillingness to pitch in around the house, and I set off to the Crossroads. What soup! Broth full of real bits of chicken, carrots, celery, a big old matzo ball as tender and fluffy as could be; this is a chicken soup for the ages. A big bowl of soup with one matzo ball runs $4.29. There's an even bigger one, which must serve an entire dance troupe, that holds two matzo balls, for $7.29. I also tried the cabbage borscht ($4.29/$7.29) a thick sweet-and-sour version that reminded me of certain Eastern European old-fashioned cabbage rolls. I'm not sure I like the place as a deli, per se--both the potato latkes ($5.99) and a pastrami sandwich ($8.99) I tried were nothing special. But I'll be back to try more one-pot comfort foods like sweet-and-sour short ribs ($14.59) and chicken in a pot ($12.99). Matzo-less: I thank you, and the wildlife thanks you. Crossroads Delicatessen & Bake Shop; 2795 Hedberg Dr., Minnetonka; (952) 546-6595. Hours: 10:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday.

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