Fhima opens two new Zahtar restaurants in the Twin Cities

Flamboyant restaurateur finally focuses on giving diners what they want

And Fhima has been all over the world. The son of a French-Moroccan mother and a Sicilian father, Fhima grew up in Casablanca and traveled widely before arriving in Minnesota. Those experiences, a sort of multicultural mashup, have always influenced his restaurants. His first in the Twin Cities, Mpls. Cafe, had a bohemian look and served a combination of Italian, French, and Southwestern food. It was a one-stop shop to meet for cocktails, nosh on lobster and saffron penne, and finish the night with some salsa dancing. Compared with what other local restaurants were doing at the time, the concept was rather revolutionary.

His next place, Fhima's, which opened in 2002 with the help of a $700,000 subsidy from the city of St. Paul, was another forward-looking restaurant. The modern, sophisticated space featured every millennial restaurant-design trend—open kitchen, splashy wine display, funky furniture and bathroom decor—along with a spacious dance floor. Fhima's was something like a modern version of Mancini's, except it served Mediterranean food instead of steaks. It was a youthful, trendy place in which a mature diner might still feel at home, and its popularity gave confidence to many a nascent condo developer.

But one of the major problems with Fhima's ambiance-rich concepts—Mpls. Cafe, Fhima's, Louis XIII, and even the more casual LoTo—is that they always seemed more about mood than food. The idea of Mpls. Cafe was one thing, for example, but its execution was another. City Pages' 1997 review summarized that thought with the headline "The Sad Comedy of Really Bad Food." Ordering at a Fhima restaurant felt like a gamble—results were sometimes great, sometimes inedible.

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

Location Info

Map

Zahtar by Fhima

615 2nd Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Details

ZAHTAR BY FHIMA
www.zahtarbyfhima.com
appetizers $5-$14, entrées $16-$35

ZAHTAR MINNEAPOLIS (open to the public)
The Grand Hotel, 615 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis;
612.752.9595

ZAHTAR EDEN PRAIRIE (Life Time Fitness members and guests only)
755 Prairie Center Dr., Eden Prairie
952.829.8484

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This time around, the food seems better. Fhima serves as the executive chef, with a chef de cuisine at each location to oversee daily operations (Jeremy LaFond, formerly of Ravello, runs the Minneapolis location). Fhima splits time between the two, and one night I spotted him buzzing between Eden Prairie's kitchen and dining room guests in a pair of hip sneakers and a chef's apron.

The chicken tajine may be Fhima's legacy to the Twin Cities, and when I had it at Zahtar, the dish was amazing. Fhima grew up on tajine, which he considers the ultimate Mediterranean comfort food—the Moroccan version of brisket and potatoes. The free-range, bone-in bird has crackling skin and moist, tender meat. It's served with caramelized vegetables, bits of almonds and preserved lemons, and an apricot-and-cayenne marmalade. Every bite pops with flavor—smoky, spicy notes reminiscent of chai tea created from a harmonious balance of cinnamon, clove, cayenne, paprika, cumin, turmeric, marjoram, and fennel seed.

Because the menu paints in such broad strokes, one can order an excellent saffron-tinged lobster bisque with a plate of Guinness short ribs, which are molasses-sweet with a bitter edge, and a sushi roll stuffed with shrimp tempura and wrapped in salmon, avocado, and eel. (Fhima wisely retained Martini Blu sushi chef Chano Bustamante.) Among the appetizers, the must-order is the haricots verts, reprised from Fhima's short-lived Franco-Chinoise place, Cafe Chloe in Uptown. It might seem silly to pay $9 for green beans, but these are among the best vegetable sides I've ever eaten. They're sautéed until they take on a smoky, caramelized character and are doused in a bright, tart, salty teriyaki sauce.

For a downtown business lunch, I'd recommend the Kobe beef burger, which comes with some terrific matchstick French fries tucked into a little paper cone. The meat was cooked more than I had specified, but I liked the caramelized onions and mushrooms and its unctuous, eggy challah bun that reminded me a bit of meat-filled Chinese ones. Zahtar also serves pizzas, including one topped with barbecue chicken that would certainly give a purist pause. It sounded awful: barbecue sauce, chicken, blue cheese, and pickles. And it looked worse: The long, flaccid pi ckle strips were strewn on a puddle of ruddy sauce as if it were an untimely accident. But the pizza's crust was perfectly crisp and delicate, and the odd toppings created an addictive interplay of smoky, sweet, pungent, and pickled flavors.

One of the dishes that represent Zahtar's healthful mantra is the cod served with steamed asparagus and a spicy mint-tomato-cucumber salsa. I'm sure it was low-cal and nutritious, but the salsa was a little too spicy and the cod had a weird aftertaste that reminded me of drinking from a plastic water bottle (maybe I've just eaten too much lutefisk). I had high hopes for the Couscous Royale, too, but it lacked the tajine's lovely spice blend. The lamb meatballs were dry, and the homemade harissa didn't make up for the bland, under-salted mix.

I never found a dessert that seemed worth extending one's workout. The campfire fondant, for example, was a reasonable idea: DIY s'mores made with a molten chocolate cake instead of a Hershey's bar. But the plate only came with three graham cracker halves (who makes an open-face s'more?) and, worse, three lousy commercially made marshmallows. This, to me, represented a disheartening lack of effort, as homemade marshmallows are surprisingly easy to make, will stay good for several days, and have superior flavor and melting and toasting properties.

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