6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul
Whenever I write a review of a big-splash restaurant, like, oh, say, St. Paul's new French Mediterranean live-music nightclub and restaurant Fhima's, the letters just come pouring in, explaining what details of your own experiences I magically intuited or irritatingly missed. I learn a lot, and I often spend the rest of the month simply cursing the way the uptight, inflexible nature of the time-space continuum is hampering my success as a writer. Also, my success at the dog track. And my access to Aztec gold. But that's another story.
For the purposes of this story, I just want to forewarn you: Nothing you can tell me about Fhima's will surprise me, or change my opinion of the place. Nothing.
You can tell me you had the worst meal of your life and whiled away an evening resting your elbows in pools of congealed sauce. I'll believe you. You can tell me you had the best meal of your life, skipped through sylvan fields of savory French classics and cha-chaed till close with a beautiful stranger who gazed at you through winking eyelashes of jet. I will believe you. You can even say that Fhima's is an uneven restaurant with a hopping bar that, no matter how the food comes out on a given evening, is an invaluable addition to St. Paul's expense-account, post-opera, or otherwise non-child-centered nightlife. And then I'd kick you in the shins, because what are you doing putting the conclusion all the way up here? That's not how you're supposed to do it! Sheesh. Now I have to come up with even more surprises.
Well, wait and watch. Because over the course of three visits, I too encountered the good, the really good, and the ugly at Fhima's. The ugly was the night the Cuban pizza ($11.50) was covered with a vast quantity of stewed sugary, sugary tomatoes enveloping spoonfuls of ground lamb (not the promised roast tomatoes and chorizo). It tasted roughly like a lamb-tomato sundae; the seafood paella ($18.95) tasted more like a metal pan than food; and the wine, ordered with the appetizers, wasn't presented until after the desserts had been served). And we spent the whole night with a filthy table because no one thought to wipe off the hard, modern plastic of it. But we also had the crêpes--three sweet nut-brown beauties lavished with a gathering of fresh berries, poised by a pool of perfect, custardy crème anglaise--and I thought: Okay, for you, little crêpes, I'll be back.
Other oddities marked further visits: "Meritage tartare," a big ball of minced raw tuna combined with sour cream, capers, shallots, and lemon juice into a sort of hyper-upscale delicatessen salmon salad, served on a bed of raw salmon ($13.50). An appetizer of haricots verts weren't the micro-beans the name implies in this country, but instead--both times I ordered them--a vast platter of overcooked green beans, in a spicy peanut sauce. At $9.75 a plate, they should be a lot more delicate. Still, part of me really admires anyone who can charge 10 bucks for a plate of string beans and get away with it. In St. Paul, no less! The paella never got any better. I tried the lamb tagine twice ($19.75) and found it gamy and greasy--not a lovable version of the dish. Yet, every time, those crêpes stayed marvelous, and the other desserts yielded real pleasure too: The enormous tarte aux pommes ($9.50) was served hot from the oven, covered with butter, and irresistibly fresh and delicious; the Marrakech lemon tart ($5.75) had a nice bit of marzipan in the crust.
Over time, the picture became clear. I found other servers who were flashy, attentive, and speedy in a wonderfully polished way. More important, the bar was constantly packed, and everywhere I looked, couples were dancing vivaciously. And I found enough dishes that, while not chef-driven or anything to rhapsodize over, were truly solid and likable: A green salad ($5.25) was enhanced by nutty pumpkinseeds and sharp Gorgonzola, and I liked it.
Also try the Moroccan tapas plate--there is one great thing on the $12.50 platter, namely the spicy tomato dish "chouk-chouka," which is like a sweet and fiery cross between tomato relish and tomato confit, a profoundly deep-tasting thing that everyone at the table was fighting over. A toast-round spread with goat cheese and topped with almonds sat near the chouk-chouka, and it was joined by various piles of hummus, cornichons, roasted red peppers, and a sweet eggplant marmalade.
The roast chicken (poulet rôti, $15.50) tasted fried, but with the crisp skin, moist meat, and surrounding thin fries, it was just fine. The very, very best thing I tried was the pot au feu ($16.50) of chicken: Order it and a beautiful little casserole arrives, filled with tender vegetables and chicken falling off the bone--in short, bone-deep comfort food. I also liked a simple roast trout ($18.75) with a sweet side of a date and almond purée, though everyone at my table preferred what I felt was a fairly pallid piece of rare-seared tuna ($24.50), served with decorative plate designs of a wasabi sauce.
As you can imagine, picking a wine to pair with wasabi, tagine, chicken pot au feu, and chouk-chouka is rather a challenge. Lucky for you, the list is some 700 bottles long, so you can have ample opportunity to test any theories about pairing you might have. Any theories. At all. What is the difference between reading a list of 700, and a list of 5,000? They are equally exhausting--you had better have your wits about you when you confront it. And your glasses, as the type is very small. And, if you're smart, an extra quarter-hour to muse and sort, and wonder why the list has varietal sections, as well as separate "interesting" sections for red and white, and also "chef's" sections for red and white. Are the chef's wines not interesting? Are the interesting wines frowned on by the chef? The mind wobbles. Yet, once stabilized by a few well-placed matchbooks, the mind is happy to find a bunch of nice options: $17 crisp, acidic, and pleasantly simple Martin muscadet; rich, floral, and honeyed New Zealand Villa Maria sauvignon blanc, for $36; the cherry and brisk smoke of Michel Chapoutier's Belleruche Côtes du Rhône for $32. (Are you wincing because you saw that the Belleruche is on sale during the Surdyk's Fall Wine Sale, October 9-26, for $8 a bottle? Yeah, it's my pick of the sale. too.) Okay, the wine list is studded with a couple of pitfalls--big-name wines that look like a bargain unless you really, really know your vintages--and the thing as a whole is a little too pricey. But the main problem is the logistics of fetching the stuff: Even when the restaurant was humming at peak efficiency, ordering wine was like asking for shoes at Macy's during a sale. Where do they go? When will they return? A third as many wines would make for a better restaurant. As a friend of mine who works in retail explained to me, this list violated a cardinal sin of merchandising: It is "over-assorted." It's bad to be over-assorted, she explained. It's good to pick something and stand behind it. Is that the same reason the appetizer menu has cheese fries, "Greek nachos," jerk chicken drumsticks, and sevruga caviar? Hmm. New phrases are so tantalizing.
Yet after using the very whole of my brain over many nights and trying and trying to figure it out, I have had to conclude that Fhima's isn't merely over-assorted, because it isn't really a restaurant at all; it's really all about the dancing. Live and lively bands, every kind of booze you can think of, from Chartreuse ($6) to Smirnoff Ice ($4.95), naked ladies on the walls (you'll see)--Fhima's isn't so much a restaurant as it is an old-fashioned supper club, along the lines of the Manor or Mancini's: It's a place you go to eat, yes, but it's mostly a place you go to dance, or be around dancers, or generally participate in an evening that has something about bodies and festivity and hootenannies to it. So what if Fhima's paella isn't any better than the Manor's orange roughy? By God, at least it's an authentic living experience for adults in the middle of downtown St. Paul.
Which might seem like an odd tack to praise, but it wouldn't seem weird to you if you had had to brave that goddamn infestation of Lucy statues in downtown, and especially the ones outside the window walls of Fhima's. All 55 of them, it seemed like. Grinning, grinning, grinning. Like a ghastly Orwellian army dispatched to enforce civic gaiety, cartoonish innocence, and sexless cheer.
Well, don't go looking for them now: They've gone, gone to their spiritual home, the Mall of America, for auction this weekend, October 13. So that money may be raised for permanent, bronze sculptures of the Peanuts gang downtown! Yes, permanent. Forever! And ever! And ever ever ever!
So, I know we were all up at the lake and stuff all summer--but when did our republic take as its model the childlike wonder of the Disney Store? And its concomitant core mission to promote trademarked merchandise? If McDonald's offered to set a thousand over-size Ronald McDonalds on the street corners, would that be art? If you take it upon yourself to start super-gluing Smurfs or Garfields on the street corners, is that now art? Or some combination of littering, public nuisance, and a tripping hazard? Which word or phrase would you most enjoy using when describing our state capital: childlike, cartoonishly innocent, or cute?
The longer I live here the more I must think--from the LSGI scandal, when plans to dome Nicollet Avenue were scuttled, to the suburb-with-height of Block E, to these annual tacky totems of unassailable happiness--that our entire civic debate is nothing but an argument between those who want our world to approach as closely as it can the inside of the Mall of America, and those who do not want that. And as Fhima's is downtown and full of dancing, foreign food, and booze, and thus firmly on the side of adultlike wonder, I say good, good, good.
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