Gallic Counterculture

A glass of vin, a plate of snails, and thou.
Jana Freiband

5555 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis

Last year wasn't a great year for French restaurants, hereabouts. Restaurants Zinc and un deux trois closed, and the French chef with the best French technique in town, Patrick Atanalian, was forced out of the old Loring, along with everyone else, when the place lost its lease. (Atanalian is teaching cooking, and cooking lunch, now at Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights.) After that, this year, this year wasn't a good year for French wine, with some estimates running that top French wine sales are down a full 15 percent as Americans work out their frustration with French antiwar sentiment in their local liquor stores. So why are customers packing into Cavé Vin, south Minneapolis's newest celebration of frites and flageolet?

Because, brother, frog's legs have never tasted so good. Nor have snails. The frog's legs are battered and sautéed, which renders them golden and sparkly with browned bits of garlic, served scattered with parsley and fresh lemon, piled in a plate with plenty of garlic butter to dredge your bread through. Hoo boy: Garlicky, tender, buttery, with the perk point of lemon; at $7 for a stack of them they've already got my award for the top new guilty pleasure of the south metro.

Garlic butter. Remember the joy of garlic butter? I can't remember the last time I saw it doing anything interesting on a local menu. And there it is again, in the snails: escargots ($7.95) in a garlic cream sauce, snails as tender and plump as grapes, crowned with fried curls of parsley. Sorry, Vincent, these are the new best escargots in town. And to tell you the honest to Betsy truth, I've had escargots maybe a hundred times in my life, and they have never been even half as good as thes were--so tender, so lush.

And the Caesar salade! It's not just the extra e that makes it fancy, oh no. In fact, I'm not sure I have enough superlatives in my toolbox to do the thing justice: simply leaves of young romaine covered in an anchovy, garlic, and lemon vinaigrette made with great quality, rich, green olive oil, the whole of it bedecked with soft crumbles of hard-boiled egg white, covered with little tangy slices of pecorino cheese. In fact, perfect papers of pecorino placed precisely, pleasantly, prettily, in paramount preeminence! Whoops. I lose myself. Anyway, it was such a good salad, the bright and light of the salad greens amplified by the rich green qualities of the oil, the sour and tang of cheese, the soft and sweet of egg white, and all of it leading to the robust pop of garlic and anchovy. It was a Caesar salad deconstructed by a great food thinker and made new, which is quite a triumph.

Set some of these French classics beside a glass of vin from Cavé Vin's relievedly good wine list, and the restaurant seems simply brilliant. Overall, the place has the air of a romantic and modern barn. The room itself is high-ceilinged and relatively unadorned, but with the classic Provence color scheme of eggy yellow and cornflower blue toned down and lit dimly, the whole thing manages to pull off the neat trick of being sunny but also romantic. A squidlike art-glass lamp gives the scene an up-to-the-minute accent. The big, long tables that line the walls suggest an informal country barn, and while the place is very loud, it's a darn sight quieter than the Cape-Canaveral-launching-loud of sister Pane Vino Dolce.

The reason I say the wine list is relievedly good is because when I talked to David Hahne, who owns the restaurant with Carlos Macy, before he opened, he said that the plan for the restaurant was to serve inexpensive wines. And I have seen so many restaurants start out with that plan and come to grief once opening expenses piled up. And yet here it is! Five wines at $5 a glass, $20 a bottle; another five under $30; and most of the cheapies nice, solid French country wines like the crisp and acidic Macon, "Bouchard Aînés & Fils Macon-Villages," which has a lemony edge just strong enough to stand up to those rich garlic cream sauces. Belgian ales are served in the appropriate goblet-like glasses, so even if you're just having frites ($5) and aioli (textbook perfect) you will look the picture of dining sophistication.

Desserts are everything they should be. A chocolate pot de crème ($5) was a rich and beautiful rendering of chocolate pudding, bitter and deep and custardy, the pile of whipped cream on the plate a treat in and of itself, a luxurious mountain of ivory joy. The tarte Tatin ($5) was good, the caramelized apples tender and evocative, striking a lovely balance between the plain goodness of the fruit and the gilding of the cooking.

Hey, but why did I skip the entrées? Why? Because I want to pretend they don't exist, my silly little doves. Well, all right, if you insist.

Sadly, with a sadness perhaps only a French soul can ever truly understand, I didn't find a single entrée worth ordering. Roast chicken with frites ($11.95) was beyond overcooked, the skin shriveled into something resembling thrift-shop upholstery. A duck breast special ($23) was a cascading disaster: the duck so tough it was nearly impossible to cut through, even with a massive steak knife; gummy, mouth-sticking gnocchi; bizarre, completely tasteless golden trumpet mushrooms--mon dieu! In a true sleight of hand, medallions of lamb in an otherwise lovely béarnaise ($22) managed to look perfect, all rosy and lovely, and yet again were so tough as to be nearly inedible--though the accompanying French lentils with teensy little pearl onions were terrifically tasty.

I could do this all day, but my advice to you is, stick to lots of appetizers, or if you do find a good entrée, rush from the restaurant and buy a lottery ticket--you're a winner, baby.

What's particularly weird in a particularly French and déjà vu sort of way is, this is almost the exact verdict I rendered after reviewing Cavé Vin's older sibling and sister restaurant Pane Vino Dolce: It's loud, it's wonderful, it's delightful, skip the entrées. I can only hope I'll say the same every five years as, working westward on the European continent, the Pane Vino Dolce team unveils loud loveable restaurants showcasing Spanish, Portuguese, and smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-the-Pacific-Ocean cuisine.

Oh, and finally, here's another non-snail-related thought as to why they're packing them in at Cavé Vin in an anti-French season: It's only the over-$20 (wholesale) French wines that are off so significantly. The under $10s are going gangbusters. Which is to say that if you make your bed with rich Republican collectors, well, that's the way the croissant crumbles. But if you hitch your wagon to the good DFLers of south Minneapolis, you can party in the dim romance till the last heel of bread has swept the last smidgen of garlic butter to your happy peasant lips.

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Cave Vin

5555 Xerxes Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55410


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