Really Fine Dining

Minneapolis is a-changin', and the restaurant scene will never be the same

TRULY FINE DINING

Minneapolis has a lot of restaurants these days that think they're fine dining, but aren't. They don't have the staff, they don't have the gear for the table, they don't have the training, and, frankly, most of the time they don't have a clue. I think of them as platinum-card hillbilly. When I rule the world, government ninjas, probably French government ninjas, will patrol the valet lots, and whenever they find foil pats of butter, pre-squashed, accompanying meals costing a hundred dollars, they'll run in the back and explode eggs in all the microwaves. Whenever a guest seated at a white tablecloth is rammed into more than six times by a passing server, the French ninjas will run in and have the joint reclassified as a roller derby. Whenever a host is promoted to server, good old ninjas will rush in with scent kits to poke that person with ficelles until he or she can identify corked wine. What are ficelles? Oooh, I'm glad you asked. They're like skinny loaves of French bread, but fancier!

My long regional nightmare is coming to a close, and I can finally say ficelle in public, because, hot darn, La Belle Vie is opening in Minneapolis. Fine dining will never be the same!

Now, La Belle Vie, in case you're new here, has been the standard-bearer for truly fine dining in Minnesota ever since chef and co-owner Tim McKee left D'Amico Cucina to open his Stillwater restaurant in early 1998, taking with him various assets, including his accolades as one of America's top young chefs, his former sous-chef and future business partner Josh Thoma, and his manager and wine guru Bill Summerville. The restaurant built its reputation as the only one in the greater metro where the food was exquisite and the rest of the restaurant did nothing to detract from it: the fine level of table service, the beautiful wine list, the French cheeses like little quails in nests, the works. I still remember the first meal I had at La Belle Vie, the yellow turnip ravioli, tremulous as raindrops...oh, those were the days.

But, time passed. La Belle Vie begat Solera, the giant Spanish tapas bar downtown; Solera begat some capital, allowing the LBV crew to dream a little bigger, and voilà! October (knock wood) should see the opening of La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. As I type, they are busily transforming the old 510 Restaurant space into something contemporary and, if my telephonically communicated understanding is correct, perhaps even taupe-like.

The new La Belle Vie will have two parts: a bar and lounge, and a real, be-still-my-heart, serious fine-dining dining room. What's a serious fine-dining dining room? One with tablecloths, flowers, and candlelight. Real crystal for the wine (in this case, Riedel). Fancy china, namely Rosenthal and Limoges Bernadaud. "They let Thomas Keller design his own, which for some reason I wasn't able to do," mused McKee when I spoke to him for this story.

It should have the sort of wine cellar that makes a wine lover's heart lilt a little with anticipation. Of course, a truly great fine-dining restaurant should be able to make a sewer worker with a taste for lawnmower beer feel like a well-respected king, because that is what it means to provide hospitality and be gracious, and, of course, that's just manners, but the high-end stuff is what separates, shall we say, the hillbillies from the platinum.

So exactly how much platinum are you going to have to part with to get in here? McKee says he'll have an à la carte menu, but the main focus will be on seven-course tasting menus priced at $75 or so. At first, I thought this was pretty reasonable, especially considering the 10 restaurants in town where two courses, served by a kid in jeans who can't tell a Riesling from a pickle barrel, run dangerously toward $50. Later, I got a glimpse at one of his proposed tasting menus, and it seemed like a straight-up bargain: marinated raw prawns with osetra caviar in shrimp consommé; lobster and pumpkin cappelletti with coral sabayon and black truffles; caramelized, poached foie gras with Banyuls-braised Forelle pears; roasted squab with cauliflower croquette, golden raisins, Moroccan spices...and that's before half-time.

Word has it that the tables are oversized and generously spaced: La Belle Vie is hosting about two-thirds as many seats as the old 510 got into the same area.

The lounge, modeled after New York hot spots like Milk and Honey and Angel's Share, will be the kind of place where cocktails will be as original and completely conceived as food. One as-yet-unnamed concoction will combine Calvados and apple cider with a complicated syrup derived from fresh-poached quince, orange zest, cinnamon, and other real kitchen ingredients. There will be a special lounge snack menu too--think finger foods, taken to heights. Baby vegetables you can dip in a truffle fondue. Classic Mediterranean fritto misto (various mixed fried things) with crayfish, rock shrimp, and haricots verts, tossed with watercress and garlic.

When will this extravaganza of fine living throw open its doors? Sometime in October, most likely, or perhaps early November. I must say I really like the way things are shaping up here: Five, the Stuart Woodman restaurant and lounge, has opened a scant dozen blocks to the south, and now, for a dozen blocks along Hennepin Avenue to the north, we've got La Belle Vie, 20.21, Solera, Cosmos, and, soon enough, we'll also have Spice Market in there (in the hotel coming to the corner of 9th and Hennepin). I've long thought that the thing we really lack as a restaurant city was real competition and critical mass, and with all these fine-dining temples in a row, and Auriga and 112 Eatery just on the periphery, it looks like the fun is just beginning. And that it may finally be time for some of those platinum hillbillies to get a little overwhelmed. La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland, Minneapolis, 612.874.6440

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