Get your jazz hands ready. Because saying the name of David Fhima's new restaurant practically begs for spirit fingers and a stage whisper. Come on, try it: "Wanna get dinner at . . . Faces?" You might want to think about recruiting your dining companions via text message or email.
It wasn't until my second or third visit that I realized that the restaurant's full name is Faces Mears Park, in honor of the pretty Lowertown St. Paul green space it overlooks. The restaurant originally operated as LoTo, which Fhima, the chef-restaurateur behind Mpls. Café, Fhima's, and Louis XIII, among others, opened back in 2005. Fhima sold LoTo to Lifetime Fitness, with which he partnered to operate the health club's Zahtar restaurants, and recently bought the business back to reopen it as Faces.
The new restaurant's setup isn't so different from LoTo's, with an airy dining room, bar, atrium seats, and takeout deli counter that offers cheeses, meats, house-baked breads, and other prepared eats. There's a new metal cage in one corner, which looks rather like a venue for a mixed-martial-arts fight, but is actually an off-sale bottle shop. (The cage satisfies a state requirement that a liquor shop paired with another retail establishment has its own separate entrance.)
Now that Lifetime's Zahtar by Fhima restaurants are up and running without need of their namesake's daily oversight, Fhima says he's focusing on Faces and limiting his responsibilities to the kitchen, so as not to get bogged down by other aspects of the business which have bedeviled him in the past. (One of Fhima's business partners in the restaurant is Billy Beson, who redecorated the space with a warm-but-modern design that mostly works, except for the dated-looking "face" icon.)
Fhima is no longer juggling multiple restaurants as he has in the past, though he seems to be making up for it with his multi-component concept. Five years ago, LoTo's flexible, mixed-use setup may have been ahead of its time, but now that other new restaurants have recently breathed life into Lowertown, and customers are more familiar with combination restaurant/food-and-beverage retailers such as France 44 and Pairings, the market for Faces should be better.
After decades of cooking with truffles and foie gras, Fhima says he has adopted a "back to basics" approach at Faces. The idea is to meet diners where they are, give them what they want, and make them feel at ease. "If you want to be dressed in a Chanel suit," Fhima says, "you'll be comfortable. If you want to be in jeans and sandals, you'll be comfortable."
Faces' menu consists of mostly straightforward renditions of American fare, including pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, and steaks, with an emphasis on natural ingredients such as organic chicken and grass-fed beef. Faces' focus on being accessible and affordable is reflected by its happy-hour wine: a Yellow Tail chardonnay that retails for about $7, notable for being named the most popular imported wine in the country.
While the Mears Park view has always been one of the space's best assets, the sprawling site has struggled somewhat to control the semi-permeable membrane between its private spaces and public surroundings. Once, when dining in LoTo's Galtier Plaza atrium, one of my friends had her meal interrupted by a chatty vagrant who invited himself to a seat at her table as her server stood by, meekly, without intervening. During a recent visit to Faces, employees took swifter action when a more threatening interloper—a bat circling through the dining room—caused diners to cower and scream. A brave kitchen staffer swatted the beast out the door with a broom and then paraded past his applauding protectorate, pumping the weapon in his arms like he'd just won the Wimbledon cup.
Several dishes at Faces deserve praise of equal enthusiasm, but still, as with many a Fhima restaurant in the past, the restaurant can sometimes be plagued with inconsistencies.
On the plus side, if you ever see tagine on the menu, order it. The tagine—served in a vessel of the same name, which was, in this case, a raging-hot cast-iron bowl with an enameled, funnel-shaped lid—is Fhima's signature, and a reflection of his Moroccan heritage. One night I lucked into a special of a beef tagine with peppers, green beans, and olives. The dish was as hot as the desert, decadent with spice, and seemed like the sort of thing a sultan might serve to his cherished guests.
Thousand Hills grass-fed beef is also served in the form of an eight-ounce filet mignon, perfectly cooked as requested. It comes with a delightful little crock of fennel-potato-leek gratin that certainly beats the typical steakhouse's foil-wrapped baker. The sea bass, seared with smoked butter and a teriyaki-sesame glaze, is another rewarding selection. The fish has a mild flavor but a dense, toothsome texture that holds up to its accompanying French-style whipped potato, or mousseline, that's rich with cream, egg yolk, and nutmeg.
Fhima has surprised me before with awful-sounding pizzas that turned out to be tasty, including one at Zahtar with barbecue chicken, blue cheese, and pickles. A Faces pizza called the Siesta sounded similarly suspect, but was in fact a satisfying pie. The crust was respectably bubbly and piled with marinara, ground beef, shredded chicken, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, plus a bend of piquant capers, caramelized onions, and spicy, taco-like seasoning blended together far better than you'd ever expect.
But Fhima takes the fusion too far with the Asian tuna melt, which combines sourdough bread, Swiss and Gruyere cheeses, and tuna mixed with peanut butter, sesame, teriyaki sauce, honey, and sambal oelek, the Indonesian chili sauce. It had the potential to work in the way a peanut butter-banana-bacon Elvis sandwich finds success, but one of the main ingredients always seemed like the odd man out. The result reminded me of an unwashed American backpacker lost in an Asian market.
The sandwich wasn't an expensive mistake at $6.50, but if you spend an extra dollar and a half more, you're better off with the Hot Brown. It's a more restrained sandwich—open-faced turkey and bacon topped with cheesy mornay sauce—that hews closer to its Kentucky roots.
Speaking of cheap, you'd be hard pressed to find a $3.50 dessert at a restaurant with $20 entrees these days, but there are several good ones on Faces' list, including a fine flourless chocolate cake and a white chocolate and raspberry layer cake. Better still was a slightly more expensive dessert special of key lime pie stuffed into a martini glass. It was a super-sweet-tart, gooey mess—something to eat while catching up on last week's People or an episode of Jersey Shore. If you want an actual martini, I'd recommend the Rosemary Salty Dog, made with gin, grapefruit, a big sprig of rosemary, and a kosher salt–limned rim.
Actually, have a couple of those if you ordered the seafood linguini—house-made whole wheat pasta with a too-bland tumeric-coconut broth—or the organic roast chicken, which, when I tried it, came out paradoxically dry and mushy and seemed like something you'd get served by your mother-in-law.
A few other slips were small but prevented otherwise excellent dishes from achieving their full potential. The gratis Gruyere puffs that begin every meal had perfect structure and flavor every time, but I kept wishing they were served warm instead of room temperature. The coconut banana rum tiramisu would have been better had it not tasted as though it had been sitting in the cooler too long. Also, it was served in a small glass bulb, which could have been cute had it not been water spotted in a way that suggested algal scum on a fishbowl.
But the American-style Niçoise, named for its mayo-laced tuna salad, was the most shameless offense I encountered. Its tomatoes were pink and flavorless during summer's peak and, in several spots, the mixed greens were decomposing into dark, slimy clumps. Fhima says he's been working seven days and nights a week at Faces, and indeed, every time I dined, I spotted him there. But if that disastrous salad is what happens if Fhima steps away from the kitchen for even a minute, I'm afraid the head chef will never have a night off.
Compared to his front-of-the-house staff, who tend to be cheery if a little inexperienced, Fhima is most at ease in the host's role. He regularly tours the dining room in his chef's whites, greeting guests, answering questions, and making helpful, descriptive suggestions. Fhima's enthusiasm and perseverance suggest a true passion for the restaurant business, but he needs to mind every detail to keep his customers impressed. "I was physically hurt when I opened restaurants and they didn't do well," Fhima says. "I was so all over the place and undercapitalized. I am not going to do that again."