Fhima opens two new Zahtar restaurants in the Twin Cities
When chef David Fhima opened Louis XIII, or Treize, as it was sometimes called (the locals always stumbled over the full pronunciation), at Southdale in 2004, he was at the height of his restaurant career. The concept was "Napoleon meets Bon Jovi in Edina"—Fhima-speak for a stylish white dining room with lots of crystal chandeliers, Philippe Starck furniture, and booths swathed in privacy curtains where sleek, moneyed diners ordered Asian bouillabaisse and champagne cocktails.
He shook up the Twin Cities dining scene with his upscale ethnic restaurant-nightclub, Mpls. Cafe, in the mid-1990s, and by the time Fhima launched Louis XIII he also owned downtown St. Paul's splashiest eatery, his namesake Fhima's. He was about to open a casual cafe, LoTo, and he had an ambitious, multistory restaurant/salsa club in downtown Minneapolis in the works. He also had the confidence—some might say audacity—to plunk Louis XIII, one of the state's sexiest restaurants, into a shopping mall.
But just a few years later, the flashy restaurateur found himself in the unenviable position of being underfinanced and overcommitted. He'd mortgaged his house and spent or sold most of his assets, including his kids' college funds. He'd willfully ignored the restaurateur's rule that when you start dipping into your personal funds to support the restaurant, you have to quit. "If you would have told me that at the time, I would have never listened," Fhima says, in his thick French accent. "I'm eternally optimistic." Fhima's lawyers had been advising him to declare bankruptcy for two years, but he was resisting. "There were so many people involved with me, and I didn't want to let them down," he recalls. Bankruptcy would be giving up—something Fhima didn't consider an option. "Those words do not exist in my vocabulary," he says.
By June 30, 2008, though, Fhima's Kenwood home was in foreclosure and the sheriff was scheduled to seize it in just four days. Driving back from a meeting, Fhima called his wife. "I told her, 'I don't know what to do anymore.'" His debts had ballooned to more than $2 million and his family was about to get kicked out of their home. "I felt like I was trying to swim with weights around my legs—at some point you're just going to drown." Fhima finally acknowledged the unlikelihood of completely repaying all his creditors. "I thought, I'm no longer being honorable," he reflects. "I'm being stupid."
Fhima's bankruptcy filing marked the end of his entrepreneurial heyday. Mpls. Cafe, Fhima's, and Louis XIII were closed. He sold his interest in LoTo and abandoned his dreams of the downtown Minneapolis restaurant-nightspot. By the time Fhima declared bankruptcy, the chef who had arguably attracted more attention than any other in the Twin Cities no longer owned any restaurants.
And yet none of those things meant Fhima was getting out of the business. Within months he would debut two new restaurants under the name Zahtar by Fhima, in partnership with Life Time Fitness health clubs. While history hasn't shown Fhima to be an astute businessman, perhaps this second chance would allow the relentless restaurateur to finally prove his kitchen prowess. Had a changed Fhima risen from the ashes?
It's telling that, despite its recent tarnish, Fhima's name still held enough cachet that Life Time incorporated it into that of the restaurants. (It's also telling that the opening of Zahtar's Eden Prairie location was documented not by the Star Tribune's restaurant critic but by its gossip columnist, Cheryl Johnson, who called Fhima a "naughty boy" and claimed he grabbed her tush.)
Zahtar's Minneapolis branch, on the second floor of the Grand Hotel, has a dim, clubby ambiance and tends to be populated by the sort of urban professional crowd that would belong to a gym offering laundry service. A few gauzy curtains, glass candle holders, and low, colorful stools give the space a hint of Arabian Nights, but overall the room doesn't look drastically different from when it was Martini Blu. The Minneapolis Zahtar is open to the public, while the suburban spot is meant only for club members. The Eden Prairie location overlooks the club's indoor tennis courts, and its clientele is far more family-oriented. In Minneapolis, guests tend to change out of their gym clothes, while in Eden Prairie the practice is less common.
Zahtar, which is the name of a North African spice blend, offers a Mediterranean-American menu and vague promises of "healthy," "sense-stimulating" refueling, which can mean anything from sushi to whole-wheat-crust pizza. The concept seems a little undefined ("I thought this was going to be some vegan place," my friend remarked, pointing to the hamburgers and chocolate mousse), but Fhima's style has always been loose.
Fhima restaurants tend to offer upscale ethnic food in spaces with energetic, nightclub vibes—though this time guests get their exercise on treadmills instead of a dance floor. Today, in the Twin Cities, we might take fusion food and multiuse spaces for granted, but that's in part because Fhima has helped introduce them to us.
Before Fhima arrived on the Twin Cities dining scene in the mid-1990s, the nicest local restaurants—D'Amico Cucina, Forepaugh's, W.A. Frost, and the like—tended to serve traditional food in conservative quarters. An upscale dinner meant broiled walleye or beef Wellington consumed in a historic mansion. Fhima, who was following his then-wife back to her home state, experienced a bit of culture shock between what he found in Minnesota and what he'd left behind in southern California, where he had owned his own restaurant and been the executive chef at the respected L'Orangerie in Beverly Hills. Fhima laughs when I ask him about those initial impressions. "Oh, come on, that's so not fair," he begins. "Let me put it this way: I did not think that I would learn much, and I wound up being humbled and learning more about food and people in the Twin Cities than I have in any other part of the world."
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.
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.
Now, I don't mean to make a mountain out of a marshmallow; I bring this up as a way to talk about Fhima's notorious difficulty with details. He's far more an idea guy than a manager. In fact, the very things that attracted people to Fhima—his ambitious, creative vision and innovative culinary ideas—were perhaps his biggest liabilities, and the reason he continued to pursue expansion before first attending to his existing businesses' viability.
Taking on too much was eventually what led to Fhima's downfall. The first major public clue that the Fhima empire was crumbling revealed itself in May 2006, when Xcel Energy shut off power to LoTo for six days while rumors swirled that Fhima owed the utility nearly $50,000. Within weeks, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers published lists of Fhima's legal woes, which amounted to nearly a million dollars in civil claims, judgments, liens, and unpaid bills. Fhima was being sued by the IRS for unpaid federal employment taxes, by an architecture and engineering firm that had worked on Louis XIII and LoTo, by his former Mpls. Cafe landlord for back rent and expenses, and by the Fish Guys, one of his former vendors. He was late to pay the city of Edina for Louis XIII's liquor license, and staff paychecks were bouncing. An old wrongful-termination lawsuit brought by an employee of his California restaurant had resurfaced.
A restaurateur's reputation can be made or broken by his ability to build a team that can carry out his or her vision. And this is something Fhima continues to struggle with, especially in the service department. True, Fhima's front-of-the-house teams are cheerful and friendly, but they always seem to lack experience and training.
At Zahtar, a few of the wait staff I encountered seemed woefully unaware of what they were serving. The Couscous Royale arrived with an accompanying pitcher of thin, golden-colored liquid (vegetable broth, according to the menu), and when I asked my waiter about it, he actually said, "I have no clue what that is." Others behave as if they can't put themselves in a diner's shoes and demonstrate an utter lack of instinct about when to approach a table (hint: It's not every three to four minutes). One waiter hovered like a hungry pet waiting for dropped crumbs; our plates were being collected as soon as the tines of our forks pierced the last bite. Looking back at City Pages' first review of a Fhima restaurant, it seems some things haven't changed. Fhima still insists on putting multiple sports-blaring televisions in a place with pricey bottles of wine. Waiters still neglect to clean up spills—mine even created the spill, by dumping a dish of soy sauce all over the table, and didn't seem to notice the inky puddle after several trips back to the table.
In his new role, Fhima may not be directly responsible for the waitstaff, but still, their behavior influences his reputation. And this question of responsibility relates to Fhima's larger business dealings: How much can we blame Fhima for his bankruptcy? Talking to Fhima, one gets the heartsick sense that he's a man who tried his damnedest and feels genuinely remorseful about his losses. Still, those millions of dollars weren't just the result of one bad decision, and Fhima's inability to fully repay his debts created a whole slew of problems for many other businesses and individuals.
In scaling back, Fhima seems to, for the first time perhaps, be focusing more on giving diners what they want rather than telling them what they need. That tactic likely makes more business sense. Still, I think we need to give credit to the old David Fhima for his strident belief that the Twin Cities deserved big, beautiful, ambitious restaurants.
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