A downtown without at least one decent French restaurant is like a rock band without a great lead singer. After all, French cuisine remains the bedrock of fine dining, the training ground where chefs learn the rules before they break them.
For Minneapolitans, the new Fhima's Minneapolis (opening Friday) offers a reminder that we live in a cosmopolitan city, no matter that it’s not yet October and we’re already shopping for long underwear. With Chef David Fhima taking over the much-loved Forum Cafeteria space, we're now blessed with a new reason to head downtown to sip white Burgundy (the wine list offers a lovely selection) and munch on Provençal-style mussels on a freezing winter night.
Here are five things to know before you go.
5. The chef’s cultural origin story is fascinating––and the menu shows it.
You know that Moroccan-French-Catalan childhood you wish you had? Barring reincarnation, it’s too late to experience it, but at least you can live vicariously through the peripatetic boyhood of chef David Fhima. Born in Casablanca to a Spanish mother and Sicilian father, he was educated in London, Strasbourg, and Geneva before coming stateside in 1982.
Unsurprisingly for a chef who speaks five languages––Catalan, French, Italian, and Hebrew in addition to English––the menu is similarly globetrotting. This is perhaps the city’s only Francophone restaurant spanning the cuisine not only of France but its former colonies, like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Expect dishes such as Kefta, an aromatic kebab that remains one of Morocco’s most popular street foods, served here on harissa broth with preserved smen butter. (Another Moroccan specialty, to which an entire market square in Fez is devoted.) It’s lovely to see dishes complimented by North African sauces like charmoula, a bright garlicky-lemon herb sauce, as well as delicacies rarely encountered on Twin Cities menus such as pissaladiere, a golden, pizza-like specialty of France’s Côte d’Azur.
4. We need another French restaurant downtown.
In 2015, the lamentable departure of Vincent A Restaurant from Nicollet Mall left a gap. Since then, Normandy Kitchen, with its French-accented bistro menu of moules frites, beef bourguignon, and steak au poivre, has ably kept the Gallic flame alive in our fair downtown. But the Normandy remains a hotel restaurant, smack in a Best Western, and as such advertises its menu as bistro fare and American cuisine. (Is there a hotel chain more American, other than the now-elusive Ho-Jo?)
At Fhima's, the menu is far-reaching and ambitious, with just a few Midwestern touches (think merguez sausage served with tator tots) that might convince your Uncle Bill who still refers to French Fries as “Freedom Fries” to come to dinner. One caveat? It’s pricey, and occasionally simplicity is sacrificed for unduly eclectic tastes: I appreciated the fact that I’d never eaten sea bass poached in almond milk with pistachio soy glaze, kimchi, and wild rice blinis, but it was surprisingly bland.
3. Expect decadent, handcrafted desserts.
If you’re a fan of the Great British Baking Show, you’ll know that there are essentially two ways to finish a crème brulee. As a former server, I worked in a handful of restaurants that served a decent crème brulee, and we served them all cold, because it was too time-intensive to singe them tableside.
Such labor-saving economies are dispensed with at Fhima's, where pastry chef Jaclyn Von has created an appealing menu of classic desserts and pastries with a few wild riffs, such as a pumpkin-pecan Napoleon spiked with bourbon and a toothsome butterscotch tartlet enriched with espresso, sesame, and foie gras. (Thankfully, the latter tastes much better than it might sound.) I was thrilled to see both a verrine, a layered glass parfait of dark chocolate, clementine, and pistachio, and a perfect-for-sharing assiette gourmande, a selection of cheeses and dainty cakes and pastries.
2. The cocktails will knock your socks off.
Are cocktails served in heaven? If so––and I hope so––I can imagine the experience might be a bit like sidling up to Fhima’s jewel-like bar. You can’t help but feel glamorous sipping the intensely flavorful cocktails, which benefit from bar director Sean Jones’ self-described “tincture library.”
There’s either black magic in this library or Jones himself is a magician, because even as a self-sworn bourbon hater I found myself slightly smitten with the gingery, cinnamon- and apple cider-infused Dead & Lovely. Next to me, a man in a gray suit raved about the chai-whiskey Telephone Call From Istanbul, while I sipped the refreshingly fruity What She’s Having and imagined Daniel Craig sauntering up to the bar in a tux, glancing at me, and murmuring, “I’ll have What She’s Having.”
1. The grandeur endures.
To my knowledge, no James Bond film has actually been shot in the circa-1930 space. Yet neither the showstopper bar, lit by glittering chandeliers, nor the mint- and onyx-tiled dining room would look out of place in one. If you’ve visited this spot on Seventh Street in any of its previous incarnations––including Goodfellows, and most recently Il Foro––you’ll be relieved to know that the Art Deco interior has been polished to a high shine but essentially left to its own charming devices.
The tricky bit to launching a new restaurant in a spot like this? The food and drinks must present a compelling narrative that’s not overshadowed by the tremendous background. Fortunately, chef Fhima and his crew seem fully prepared to tackle the challenge.
40 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis