Fhima opens two new Zahtar restaurants in the Twin Cities

Flamboyant restaurateur finally focuses on giving diners what they want

When chef David Fhima opened Louis XIII, or Treize, as it was sometimes called (the locals always stumbled over the full pronunciation), at Southdale in 2004, he was at the height of his restaurant career. The concept was "Napoleon meets Bon Jovi in Edina"—Fhima-speak for a stylish white dining room with lots of crystal chandeliers, Philippe Starck furniture, and booths swathed in privacy curtains where sleek, moneyed diners ordered Asian bouillabaisse and champagne cocktails.

He shook up the Twin Cities dining scene with his upscale ethnic restaurant-nightclub, Mpls. Cafe, in the mid-1990s, and by the time Fhima launched Louis XIII he also owned downtown St. Paul's splashiest eatery, his namesake Fhima's. He was about to open a casual cafe, LoTo, and he had an ambitious, multistory restaurant/salsa club in downtown Minneapolis in the works. He also had the confidence—some might say audacity—to plunk Louis XIII, one of the state's sexiest restaurants, into a shopping mall.

But just a few years later, the flashy restaurateur found himself in the unenviable position of being underfinanced and overcommitted. He'd mortgaged his house and spent or sold most of his assets, including his kids' college funds. He'd willfully ignored the restaurateur's rule that when you start dipping into your personal funds to support the restaurant, you have to quit. "If you would have told me that at the time, I would have never listened," Fhima says, in his thick French accent. "I'm eternally optimistic." Fhima's lawyers had been advising him to declare bankruptcy for two years, but he was resisting. "There were so many people involved with me, and I didn't want to let them down," he recalls. Bankruptcy would be giving up—something Fhima didn't consider an option. "Those words do not exist in my vocabulary," he says.

The eternal optimist: Fhima with chicken tajine
Jana Freiband
The eternal optimist: Fhima with chicken tajine

Location Info


Zahtar by Fhima

615 2nd Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)


appetizers $5-$14, entrées $16-$35

ZAHTAR MINNEAPOLIS (open to the public)
The Grand Hotel, 615 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis;

ZAHTAR EDEN PRAIRIE (Life Time Fitness members and guests only)
755 Prairie Center Dr., Eden Prairie

By June 30, 2008, though, Fhima's Kenwood home was in foreclosure and the sheriff was scheduled to seize it in just four days. Driving back from a meeting, Fhima called his wife. "I told her, 'I don't know what to do anymore.'" His debts had ballooned to more than $2 million and his family was about to get kicked out of their home. "I felt like I was trying to swim with weights around my legs—at some point you're just going to drown." Fhima finally acknowledged the unlikelihood of completely repaying all his creditors. "I thought, I'm no longer being honorable," he reflects. "I'm being stupid."

Fhima's bankruptcy filing marked the end of his entrepreneurial heyday. Mpls. Cafe, Fhima's, and Louis XIII were closed. He sold his interest in LoTo and abandoned his dreams of the downtown Minneapolis restaurant-nightspot. By the time Fhima declared bankruptcy, the chef who had arguably attracted more attention than any other in the Twin Cities no longer owned any restaurants.

And yet none of those things meant Fhima was getting out of the business. Within months he would debut two new restaurants under the name Zahtar by Fhima, in partnership with Life Time Fitness health clubs. While history hasn't shown Fhima to be an astute businessman, perhaps this second chance would allow the relentless restaurateur to finally prove his kitchen prowess. Had a changed Fhima risen from the ashes?

It's telling that, despite its recent tarnish, Fhima's name still held enough cachet that Life Time incorporated it into that of the restaurants. (It's also telling that the opening of Zahtar's Eden Prairie location was documented not by the Star Tribune's restaurant critic but by its gossip columnist, Cheryl Johnson, who called Fhima a "naughty boy" and claimed he grabbed her tush.)

Zahtar's Minneapolis branch, on the second floor of the Grand Hotel, has a dim, clubby ambiance and tends to be populated by the sort of urban professional crowd that would belong to a gym offering laundry service. A few gauzy curtains, glass candle holders, and low, colorful stools give the space a hint of Arabian Nights, but overall the room doesn't look drastically different from when it was Martini Blu. The Minneapolis Zahtar is open to the public, while the suburban spot is meant only for club members. The Eden Prairie location overlooks the club's indoor tennis courts, and its clientele is far more family-oriented. In Minneapolis, guests tend to change out of their gym clothes, while in Eden Prairie the practice is less common.

Zahtar, which is the name of a North African spice blend, offers a Mediterranean-American menu and vague promises of "healthy," "sense-stimulating" refueling, which can mean anything from sushi to whole-wheat-crust pizza. The concept seems a little undefined ("I thought this was going to be some vegan place," my friend remarked, pointing to the hamburgers and chocolate mousse), but Fhima's style has always been loose.

Fhima restaurants tend to offer upscale ethnic food in spaces with energetic, nightclub vibes—though this time guests get their exercise on treadmills instead of a dance floor. Today, in the Twin Cities, we might take fusion food and multiuse spaces for granted, but that's in part because Fhima has helped introduce them to us.

Before Fhima arrived on the Twin Cities dining scene in the mid-1990s, the nicest local restaurants—D'Amico Cucina, Forepaugh's, W.A. Frost, and the like—tended to serve traditional food in conservative quarters. An upscale dinner meant broiled walleye or beef Wellington consumed in a historic mansion. Fhima, who was following his then-wife back to her home state, experienced a bit of culture shock between what he found in Minnesota and what he'd left behind in southern California, where he had owned his own restaurant and been the executive chef at the respected L'Orangerie in Beverly Hills. Fhima laughs when I ask him about those initial impressions. "Oh, come on, that's so not fair," he begins. "Let me put it this way: I did not think that I would learn much, and I wound up being humbled and learning more about food and people in the Twin Cities than I have in any other part of the world."

Next Page »