C'est La Belle Vie

Marisa Vargas

La Belle Vie
312 S. Main St., Stillwater; 430-3545

When I took my first bite of ravioli my hearing gave out. It was one of those moments when one sense is so occupied it trumps all the others--the rabbit-in-the-headlights phenomenon, but for your tongue. I could hardly sort out the layers of bliss: the sweet, earthy nuttiness of the roast-turnip filling, the luscious buoyancy of the handmade pasta moons, the smoky intensity of a few shreds of bacon scattered around the plate, the tang and salt of a sheet of parmesan draped over the whole composition like a bridal veil. By the time I could hear again I had become emotionally involved with the dish--giddy, protective, strangely proud. You've got to taste this, I kept telling my dinner companions. You've got to. But only one bite. Back off!

I hadn't expected such an effect from something as humble as yellow turnip ravioli, though I did have high expectations for La Belle Vie. Partners Tim McKee, 31, and Josh Thoma, 27, met behind the line at D'Amico Cucina, where McKee was chef for two and a half years and Thoma was his sous-chef. While at D'Amico, McKee was named one of America's best new chefs by Food & Wine, and everyone presumed that once the former University of Minnesota anthropology major got to write his own ticket, the results would be spectacular.

"Basically, this restaurant has been in the works my entire career," says McKee. "These French Mediterranean tastes that the menu focuses on are all the flavors I really love. I've always been in a position where I don't have enough influence on the menu, or the cuisine is in a different style. This is the cuisine that is closest to my heart."

Some menu items, like the ravioli, will be familiar to D'Amico fans, but other options, such as the anchovy-and-harissa tart ($5), head into entirely new territory. This appetizer, a cracker-thin crust topped with pungent smashed anchovies and Tunisian chili paste, sets your mouth afire in a dazzling shock of formidable flavors, a palate wake-up that would be too much if it were any bigger than saucer size. Combine it with a little dish of naturally cured mixed olives and caper berries ($3), Moroccan merguez sausages with tomato couscous ($9), and a dry wine like the 1996 La Rioja Alta "Viña Alberdi" ($26), and you can nearly feel the sirocco blowing in off the Mediterranean. Which isn't what you might expect from a chef schooled in the haute cuisine tradition; but McKee and Thoma have put together a menu that encourages mixing and matching to create a meal just as haute or casual, light or rich, inexpensive or celebratory as you might like.

Simple salads, like the seasonal greens dressed in a subtle red-wine vinegar dressing and studded with bits of exquisitely flavored Roquefort and still-warm toasted hazelnuts ($6), might be just the thing for a light dinner, especially if paired with a palate brightener such as three oysters on the half shell, dressed in a sprightly parsley sauce ($4) and accompanied by La Belle Vie's tasty bread basket and the fresh, cold butter triangle you'll recognize from D'Amico.

A luxurious meal, on the other hand, might run four or five courses: Start with a palate-teasing, coppa-crusted rabbit loin ($11), four fantastic little salami-wrapped cylinders of meltingly tender meat served standing upright in a pool of sweet, potent port reduction around a little heap of celeriac puree. For a salad, you could try the luscious king crab and avocado, tossed in a taut curry vinaigrette and served in a comely curl of avocado ($11); for an entrée, the toothsome tuna in a bright green rosemary-and-fresh-pea sauce ($22). Add a dessert and you'll be thoroughly incapacitated, weeping with joy and far too full to make the drive back to the Cities. (Does anyone else find it alarming that this summer, between Bayport Cookery, Harbor View, and La Belle Vie, the muse of great cooking seems to be spending more and more of her time on the St. Croix? Of course it could be worse. She could have lit out for Des Moines.)

The rib eye is a good place to see the chef's muse dancing. I'm not usually a big fan of the steak offerings at fancy nonsteak restaurants, since they often seem to be there to satisfy unadventurous palates. Not so at La Belle Vie, whose 12-ounce rib eye ($23) epitomizes McKee's accessible but clever approach to cooking. He takes a chewy though flavorful cut of beef, simply sears it, and serves it with an array of strong, surprisingly complementary flavors: dollops of homemade tapenade vivid with olives and piquant anchovies, a scoop of penetrating tomato confit, sweet crumbles of fried onions, bitter strands of preserved lemon, and an intense red-wine reduction. You can find in this one dish a dozen flavors beef might have; in the way it kept my interest with an array of contrasting yet essentially unified flavors, it reminded me of a wine-tasting.

La Belle Vie is certainly a nice setting for a beef-tasting--or a weekend brunch, for that matter, now that it has begun offering one. The decor is pleasant and low-key, with lots of wood and gauzily curtained windows. The back room allows a glimpse of the chefs in the open kitchen; the front room is more intimate, a quiet area dominated by a wall-sized stained-glass construction that resembles a Frank Lloyd Wright piece in its neat brown geometry. You can request a specific room when making reservations. The wine list is extensive, comprising about 100 bottles all chosen to complement the menu; the beer list features a number of Belgian champagne-style beers that go wonderfully with food.

Incredibly, the desserts are as excellent as the other offerings: If you consider yourself a student of the pastry arts, you simply must come here. In the Warm Chocolate and Chestnut Bric ($6.50), flaky, semitransparent pastry wraps around a moist, dense chocolate-and-chestnut mixture that combines with bourbon crème anglaise to make an intoxicatingly fragrant concoction, each bite of which renders you purringly content as the steamy chocolate perfume caresses you... I'll stop there, since it seems that only pornographic phrasing can do this morsel justice.

La Belle Vie's other desserts are equally wonderful: The custard Napoleon ($6) looks like art, its three layers of espresso custard between wings of fudgy chocolate-lace cookies. The stingingly tart cranberry clafouti, nestled in a toasty pastry shell and surrounded by Campari orange sauce, is a lovely rendition of the French country dessert ($6). The playfully elegant raspberry-and-passion-fruit bombe ($5.50), an ice-cream-mold dome of raspberry gelato around passion-fruit sorbetto served with a few fresh raspberries and a champagne sabayon, is a glamorous little igloo, half child's toy, half grown-up treat.

La Belle Vie opened in late March, and despite McKee and Thoma's best efforts to keep its arrival quiet--no advertising, no press-release barrage--the restaurant has been packed nearly every night. This may not be entirely good news: Compared to my first visit, dishes have been less reliably sublime lately, and one Friday night I had to wait until 9:15 for the table I had reserved for 8:30. Maybe I was just crabby, but those lovely turnip ravioli arrived more leaden than they had been--still excellent, but no longer ethereal. I suspect they had been waiting for my fried oysters ($10), which were perfect, five hot little drops of the ocean served with a potent mash of charred tomatoes wrapped in a veil of grilled eggplant. The bouillabaisse ($19) that night also suffered from bad timing; the subtle saffron-and-tomato broth had cooled and the grilled bread had gotten soggy. But I'll admit that it was hard to hold a grudge against the dish once I snapped open a bright red crawfish perched neatly on the pile of seafood and dipped his sweet tail in the garlicky rouille that livened up the dish.

Throughout this same visit my waiter was distractingly oafish. Asked to recommend a wine, he unconvincingly picked up the list and started naming the priciest bottles. He never managed to remember who ordered what, and when he brought dessert he simultaneously dropped the check and left a replacement candle next to the one still burning on our table, reinforcing the not-so-subtle message: Get Out. But it's impossible to believe that the occasional dud server won't be weeded out once the restaurant hits its stride. I know I'll be back; I've already made reservations for my next birthday. How will you know me? I'll be the one in the corner having trouble responding to aural cues.

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