1100 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis
Hey, rush to the window! Lookit there! It's the golden age of Twin Cities dining!
I am not even kidding. I think it's pretty much inarguable, because right this very minute I can think of ten--ten!--restaurants around town where you are just about guaranteed to have a totally pleasant dining experience made up of delicately prepared dishes made of the finest ingredients, complemented by fine and unusual wines, and completed with desserts as graceful as sculpture, but requiring considerably less dusting.
I guess everything could get conceivably even more gilded, and then we'll have to retroactively downgrade the present moment to silver, or bronze, or maybe, if we're really lucky, even iron or clay or something. But probably not. I say if you can afford it and don't go out for a nice dinner some time this winter, you're going to be kicking yourself in the future. It's going to be as if you had just sat there stubbornly staring at the TV all through that million-foot Halloween snowstorm.
Here's something as startling as a roof-high snowdrift in October: There's suddenly a restaurant for grownups in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, of all places. Nicollet Mall even. And not only does it lack any Giraffes Conquer Mars and Serve Tuscan Steak!-style theme, there isn't even the barest stitch of calamari on the menu. I know, it defies imagination, but work with me here. Instead, there are soaring ceilings; a chef who cooked at New York foodie temples Le Bernardin and Lespinasse and walks around the dining room getting to know his customers; entrées that start at $12; and a 90-bottle, mostly French wine list with prices from $16. (Yes, $16.) And there's often scary stuff like sweetbreads on the menu. Minneapolitans are so delighted with it all that it's busy at lunch, and it's nigh impossible to get a reservation between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. this Friday night.
This fount of miracles? Vincent, A Restaurant, which is brought to us by Vincent Francoual, A Chef, who hails from Puy L'Évêque, in southwest France near Toulouse. Francoual moved to Minneapolis four years ago, and cooked briefly at café un deux trois. He does, as far as I can tell, most everything right. He managed to transform the dead-ugly old Caribou/Bruegger's space on the corner of 11th Street and Nicollet (kitty-corner from WCCO) into an airy, elegant sort of modern vault in the most mercilessly redeveloped heart of a mercenarily write-and-erase downtown. (Am I the only one who now thinks of the entire world north of 13th Street as God and the DFL's Etch-a-Sketch?) And the things he does with grits? Oh, the things Vincent, the restaurant, does with grits: I would have thought they were illegal.
I mean, they're just grits, but made with scads of butter so they get as creamy as high-falutin' polenta, then covered in a wild- mushroom ragout made with port, and the whole thing is glazed with truffle oil. Holy moly--with its rich, creamy, potent layers of earthiness and a cuddle-up texture, this stuff is good. It's a $7.95 appetizer, but big enough for a lunch entrée, especially with Vincent's excellent bread and butter. More ambitious appetizers are also charming. Like a potato cannelloni of duck confit with roasted garlic flan, which turns out to be a cylinder of buttery pastry wrapped around rich duck meat and cubes of potato served in a bowl of broth graced by torn herbs, with a large thimble of nutty, subtly spicy flan quivering to one side. There are so many textures on the plate it's nearly an essay in mouth-feel. Each of the flavors is appealing on its own, and then together, and then whoops! It's gone.
In the bar only there are utterly perfect escargot: Five, big, buttery snails served plump as can be in little puddles of fiercely garlicky butter. Add a glass of the inky, dusky malbec wine from chef Francoual's hometown, a plate of fries to dunk in the garlic butter and voilà! That's really something to take the winter chill off. (Wine by the glass runs from $4 to $11, most around $7.)
Sometimes the menu will feature a stew or something else big and earthy. Do not pass up the chance to get one of these entrées. One night I had a Normandy tripe stew that was so meltingly tender, so intensely beefy, it was one of those dishes you get to missing halfway through the bowl. Francoual's other strong suit is fish. In the early weeks of the restaurant he served a piece of halibut with a seared crust so crisp and caramelized you practically expected to hear it crack when you put a fork in it. For the restaurant's Beaujolais nouveau party (complete with wandering accordion player), there was an utterly astonishing roast fillet of trout on a bed of leeks, cabbage, chanterelle mushrooms, and bacon: The crisp, the salt, the savory and meaty, and sweet gamy fish--it was just unforgettable.
Those were the highlights, and the worst I could find to say about anything on the menu was that it was merely pretty good. Like a plain piece of salmon on a dusky tamarind lentil ragout, or the "two way" spring lamb, which was lamb chops and a bland stew-like thing ($20). But pretty good here is still loads better than the best efforts of most kitchens. The restaurant doesn't have a bona fide pastry chef right now, but does well enough with Francoual-supervised efforts such as a pretty white pyramid of frozen nougatine in a bowl of pleasantly acid grapefruit sauce. The marshmallow aspect of the nougatine and the edge in the sauce play well against each other. My favorite was the simplest of all the desserts, now off the menu: a roasted nectarine in a velvety sabayon. I thought the chocolate melted cake with espresso sauce tasted like a dome of icing, but apparently it's the most popular dessert on the menu.
There is also a selection of after-dinner cheeses, presented as though they were desserts: a slice of Cantal cheese between tiny baguette toasts with an apple-pear compote; or pastry filled with truffled Camembert alongside a port wine reduction. I don't really see these lasting into the future. They're not much good as cheese, and not much help as dessert. (Desserts are all about $5.50; cheeses $5.)
The wine list is fairly unique for these parts in that it focuses mostly on food-friendly, mid-price southwestern European wines. If it isn't the most grenache-heavy list in town, I'll eat my beret. But, since grenache is the light, juicy, grape that pretty much defines easy-drinking wine for southern Europe, it seems highly appropriate here. To whatever extent a grape on a wine list can make a point, the grenache on this list makes the point that the focus here is food, conviviality, value, and relaxation.
When I talked to Francoual on the phone for this article, he summarized his restaurant this way: "It's the place where you can show up in jeans and eat foie gras." Which struck me as funny on two fronts: I haven't seen foie gras on the menu yet, and everyone in the restaurant's pretty dressed up. Which is additionally funny, in that the last times I've been to fancy-pants Goodfellow's and Aquavit, half the diners appeared to have left their fancy pants home, and shown up in jeans. Denim distribution in contemporary Minneapolis restaurants: Another unsolved mystery.
If you're collecting mysteries, another is that I have almost nothing to say about the service. The folks who answer the phones and take reservations are awfully helpful, asking nearly every caller if there's a special occasion, noting it, and trying to make the experience more fun. But the table service was neither good nor bad. I never found a server who was able to offer more than "It's really good" when asked about any food or wine, and they're none too good at remembering who ordered what. But they are always easily located, pace the meal correctly, and seem to be trying to do the right thing. Since the place only opened August 28th, that's not too bad.
In four visits I found very, very, very little to complain about. One time the wine by the glass was warm, but later they moved the stuff and now it isn't. Once an apple tart was dry and tasted stale, even though it was baked to order, but the barest complaint had the server whisking it from the table. The sparkling wine list needs broadening. It would be nice to have a coat check, because even though it's easy to get out of Vincent for less than $40 a head, it's also possible to spend up to $100 a person, at which point coats on the chairs and briefcases piled on the floor begin to seem silly.
And then, there's the parking. There is none--or, none attached. "People keep asking for valet parking, but we just can't afford it yet," says Francoual. "I don't even know if we can make it with this [low] pricing. I talked to a customer one night; he said, 'You won't see us again if you won't get valet parking!' Ooh, threats!" (For what it's worth, the Millennium Hotel ramp, just north of Ichiban, and the Hyatt ramp are both only about two blocks away.) It does seem like only two months ago downtown was rife with street parking, but lately it's largely gone away. Is it the new Target? A Holidazzle effect? Or just the natural progression of society: The Golden Age of Dining has supplanted the Golden Age of Parking? Could be. If so, hallelujah.
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