Ambition Accomplished

Fugaise has sky-high ambitions and the kitchen skills to match

Duck ravioli ($13) were repeatedly astonishing: At first I thought the appetizer was deconstructed entirely, because the pasta that contained the duck was stretched so thin it resembled oiled parchment, but it wasn't. Atop each pale, see-through dome was a little pile of just-cut, millimeter-diced apple squares presented in a fresh relish, and down below the ravioli was a creamy, foamy foie gras emulsion that had a flowery scent not unlike fresh apricots. Inside was a combination of confit strands, weightier ground duck, and fresh herbs. All together, the flavors were shockingly light, despite the inherent heaviness of duck and liver; it was constantly surprising in the way that grace in a heavyweight fighter is always surprising, too.

Some entrees achieved similar heights. Finger-thin fillets of rainbow trout were removed from the fish and served on top of another of Saunders's signature vaporous, ethereal sauces of cream and mystery: This one tasted of dairy and also, as subtly as if the flavors were being experienced in another room and then heard only faintly through the walls, of lemon rinds, mushrooms, oceans, and pepper. Atop the trout were pale, poached fingers of artichoke heart, and pitted exclamatory slices of brined black olive; beside the tender fish in the remarkable sauce were buttery oyster mushrooms. All in all, it was sort of like eating the sunlight glinting from a stream.

A simple plate of top quality, pink, gamey, tender pork tenderloin ($21) was given the most traditional of partners, a mustard sauce and a celeriac puree, and the most earthy of complements, a leaf of napa cabbage stuffed with spiced ground pork, yet somehow the refined treatment of it all left behind an impression of almost lilting lightness. Several times at Fugaise I found myself thinking, with exclamation points, I could eat this every day! I've never thought that in all my years of fine dining.

An eye for every detail: Fugaise's Don Saunders
Jana Freiband
An eye for every detail: Fugaise's Don Saunders

Location Info

Map

Fugaise

308 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: University

I will say that I've brought out just the highlights of my experiences, all of which happened at times when the restaurant was, at best, half full. I can't vouch for how the restaurant would be if it ever reached capacity, as it can be much easier to cook finely during slow times. The one time the kitchen was slightly off, and slices of undistinguished tuna arrived resting on unpleasantly resilient cranberry beans, everything appealing about the place seemed to fall away at once, and I found myself feeling less like I was in the sacristy of a rare talent, and more like I was confined in a gray cell.

You see, aside from Saunders's cooking, most of the other aspects of Fugaise are bare-bones. The physical space is peculiar. You enter the restaurant from a narrow street-front doorway that looks as though it would be the entrance to offices above the building, and proceed down a hallway; halfway down the hall you find the host stand, and past that, a very pretty cocktail bar that is comically tiny--it is, literally, three seats wide. Past that is the gray, windowless dining room, which is decorated with abstract art and has the air of having been physically assembled by the chef himself during late nights. The bathrooms are common to the building and down a fluorescent-lit hallway.

The wine list, almost entirely French, with a few Spanish and Italian options, is well chosen and entirely appropriate for the menu, though priced on the high side. The servers are well trained, can answer any question about any dish on the menu, have an admirable understanding of what the heck you do with flatware in a restaurant with four-star aspirations, and deliver each dish with a short speech detailing the ingredients and preparation, a practice which I find helpful, but which several of my dining companions thought pretentious.

Desserts, like the room, are bare-bones: Whenever I visited, there were only three on offer, all very simple, but definitely competent. A chocolate pot de crème was almost savory in its bitter, espresso-deep concentration. An apple cobbler was little more than freshly assembled, quickly baked apples and buttery crumbles united with a house-made caramel sauce and coffee ice cream. A scone-simple yellow cake served with Stilton cheese was given interest with fragrant, bright green olive oil. A Grand Marnier and Bailey's buttercream layer cake was notable primarily because it wasn't oversweet.

All of which is to say that if you go to restaurants for anything other than the high-flying food on the plates or the conversation with your companions, you are not going to like Fugaise. There is no hubbub, no dancing, no dueling pianos, no roaring fireplaces, no food-phobic anorectics with silicon ka-pow adjusting one another's lipstick at the bar. In fact, there is no nothing except fine dining in a quiet room. This means that if the food ever falters, even a few mere degrees out of perfect, as it did on one of my visits, the place is subject to immense backlash along the lines of, "Is that all there is?" This is especially true at dinner, when the cost easily mounts to $50 to $80 a head.

There is no other fine-dining restaurant in town that relies so heavily on the cooking talents of one individual. In fact, the mind wobbles to contemplate what would happen to Fugaise if, one dark day, Chef Saunders should happen to oversleep or, heaven forbid, get a head cold.

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