Have It All, Eat It Too
La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis
On my last dinner at La Belle Vie I was, on my arrival, trapped at the front door behind a party that included a particularly elegant pair of grandparents. She was bent forward with the weight of osteoporosis, and also with the burden of the thickest, most luxurious auburn mink coat I've ever seen, one that had oceanic waves and gravity to it, as well as luster matched only by her significant pearls and her regally colored, set, and styled hair. Her husband was fragile and neat, and wore a coat of such thick wool and such fine single-needle hand stitching that it was all I could do not to stick a thumb and finger out and flip the collar up to see whether it was lined with wool, silk, or documents smuggled by request of the last czar.
As the couple were gingerly, carefully shepherded up the steps by their attending children and adult grandchildren, my date and I were given opportunity to admire the lavish plaster moldings that decorate the fine Edwardian lobby of the 510 Groveland space. Once again we had the chance to enjoy what I can only think of now as not merely a chandelier, but a heraldic chandelier--a chandelier that trumpets grandly as you enter, alerting the universe of the wonderful meal you are about to have, and trumpets majestically again upon your exit, publicizing your triumphant return to common life.
As I watched the family with the elegant elderly couple entrust the lady's furs and the grandchildren's velvet-collared wools to the wasp-waisted blonde at the entrance to the restaurant, I was overcome with a feeling of rightness in the world. Surely this was exactly what you would want to be doing with your last years, your last significant meals: having them in an environment as regal as a bone-handled cane, and as contemporary as the morning's sunshine. You should be enjoying food cooked as well as food can be cooked, but close to home, with the people you love.
I kept an eye on that family's table throughout my own dinner, my own truly fantastic dinner, and they looked to be having as good a time as I was at the most significant restaurant of the year, the new Minneapolis location of La Belle Vie. If you don't know, La Belle Vie has been one of Minnesota's best restaurants for the better part of a decade, ever since chef Tim McKee left his post at D'Amico Cucina to open his own place in Stillwater with business partner Josh Thoma. The restaurant was known for McKee's bold, Mediterranean-touched (mostly French and French-Moroccan) cooking, for the strong wine list, for the fine service, and for the frustrating distance between Stillwater and most people's homes. Last fall the restaurant relocated to the grand old complex of restaurant and lounge spaces at 510 Groveland, in the very heart of Minneapolis, filling the regal plasterwork-bedecked spaces with understated postmodernist lamps and such, and in so doing created what this critic truly believes to be the best restaurant ever experienced in Minnesota.
The proof is in the fine dining. The physical space is everything you'd hope for on the fanciest nights of your life: All of the tables in the two connected dining rooms are set luxuriously distant from one another and are covered with white linen and a small modern lamp that glows like an amber moon. As the evening progresses you are treated to a parade of the finest tabletop items, Rosenthal and Limoges Bernadaud china, all sorts of Riedel stemware, and heavy tableware that is replaced with every course by saffron-vested servers carrying silvery trays. Everything seems momentous and chic.
Dinner, and the restaurant serves only dinner, opens with a tiny amuse bouche. One night I tried a crimini mushroom soup served in a footed glass. The creamy soup was topped with sweet and delicious fried bay shrimp resting amid a forest-green splash of parsley oil; it tasted of the gentlest facets of earth and herb, like a smile from a deep forest. Gougeres follow, and the hot, cheesy pastries are served with good butter. Then the real work of the evening begins.
At La Belle Vie you have several options for your meal: You may order the five- or eight-course tasting menu, with dessert, for, respectively, $65 or $80, with an option to add paired wines costing $45 or $55. Otherwise you can order traditionally, a la carte. The tasting menu is opulent and certainly the way to go, the only disadvantage being that you miss the chance to try an array of desserts. The restaurant even offers vegetarian or all-seafood versions of their tasting menus--and the vegetarian meal is certainly one of the best vegetarian feasts in the country, at that. But I get ahead of myself.
A typical five-course meal might start off with something inventive served in a showpiece bowl with a sort of TV-screen-shaped depression at the bottom of it. One time I encountered this bowl filled with tiny, sugar-sweet Nantucket bay scallops and curls of braised frogs' legs. The two sorts of circles were lined up like checkers in the cutout bottom of the dish, and lay in a shallow bath of citrus vinaigrette made with fennel fronds and tiny squares and leaves of micro herbs, and garnished with small hills of caviar. It was fresh, various, harmonious, and nearly lilting. Another time the dish was filled with coins cut from golden beets resting in a sort of Gruyère sabayon made with black truffles--earthy, sweet, and clear.
After this, the courses keep coming. Once I had exquisitely tender slow-poached Shetland salmon. The pretty pink morsel of fish was crowned with a dark exclamation point of crisped salmon skin, and lolled on a hillock of braised fennel. Forkfuls of the melting salmon and subtle fennel brought to mind the tender, calm feelings that arise from looking at the ocean on a placid day. Another night I had slices of braised rabbit loin, their mild sweetness given definition by the salt of crisped pancetta, and the intensity of glazed chestnuts. Simple grilled veal tenderloin was served with a sort of candied endive, and a little knob of veal sweetbreads sandwiched around a paste made of Moroccan spiced dates. Rare seared elk sat beside a porcini soufflé and braised wild mushrooms.
Whatever I tried showcased McKee's remarkable style of cooking, one in which bold spices and cooking styles that yield concentrated flavors are deployed, but somehow muted in execution so that no element of a dish ever overwhelms or shouts over another. McKee's cooking is something like a riotous market scene in North Africa, but as seen through a sepia veil that makes it all picturesque, warm, and charming. When he cooked in Stillwater, McKee's cooking was fresher and less adorned, but now in Minneapolis it is grander, more ambitious, and more elegant.
After the adventurous savory flavors, you move into the realm of cheese, which La Belle Vie takes seriously, and then into palate cleansers and desserts. For a palate cleanser one night I tried a yogurt panna cotta with Satsuma gelee that will forever live in my memory as one of the brightest, clearest, most lovely morsels ever to ascend from mere yogurt. Here, a small, shallow bowl was filled three-quarters of the way up with stark white, buoyant yogurt panna cotta. On top of this rested a cartoon-orange lid of Satsuma gelee, with three tiny, pithless sections of the tangerine fanned prettily across the top, and a small orange sugar straw spanning the whole thing. Using a spoon to wreck it, I tasted such dimensions of brisk and clear that I could equate the experience only to a sunbeam in an orange grove.
The desserts that come with the tasting menus are less spectacular than the ones on the a la carte selection, but still excellent. With the tastings I tried an intense fig layer cake set in a bowl of applewood-smoked chocolate soup. Another time, a marvelous almond financier, in which a warm, buttery dome of cherry-studded brown butter cake sat there glowing adorably beneath a halo of squiggly sugar circles and a cap of sour cherry sorbet.
The service, as you receive course after complicated course, is among the best I've ever encountered. The team of servers, in their neat saffron vests, is articulate, knowledgeable, and courteous, but never familiar. There's always a certain amount of tension with service and complicated dishes such as McKee's: If the description of the food goes on too long it interrupts conversation and makes everyone feel awkward; if it doesn't go on long enough diners are left confused by the various little heaps and cakes--are we in receipt of celeraic or turnips? At La Belle Vie they do a fine job of explaining, in detail and quickly, and then vanishing. It is a joy to experience. Questions are answered rapidly. Recommendations on wine or food are intelligent and well informed.
That wine list, by Bill Summerville, is excellent: The budget options start as low as $18 for a bottle of a French Rosé; otherwise the 300-bottle list holds truly something for everyone, including a number of excellent $60- and $80-something sparklers for big celebrations, thoughtful offerings of Sancerres and white Burgundies, and a wide variety of critically acclaimed big reds from France, Italy, and California. I have rarely seen a list so well designed for the use of real-life everyday customers, whether your occasion is business, celebration, or romance. In fact, seeing how well things go at La Belle Vie has led me to suspect that the ideal way to open a restaurant might be to run that restaurant in a smaller space out of town with the same team for nearly a decade: From salt to petit fours, it's hard for me to think of any significant way the fine dining of this restaurant could be improved.
What, you say? Your occasion is neither business, celebration, nor romance, but just everyday dining--alone and hoping for a salad? Oddly enough this fine-dining palace offers that, too, in the spacious, dim, and sexy lounge, where you can order from the lounge menu, which is not particularly thrilling, or from the a la carte menu or dessert menu, both of which are.
The salads from the a la carte menu can be exquisitely good. A warm goat cheese tart with a green salad, tomato confit, and tapenade vinaigrette ($11) paired oven-roasted tomatoes that tasted like summertime made into a silky rounds of jerky with an intensely fresh tart built from cracker-like pastry and goat cheese. The endive and mâche salad with a warm poached egg, crisps of pancetta, and a truffle vinaigrette ($12) was nothing short of magnificent, the nubby egg arriving on a perfect circle of buttered, toasted brioche--pierce it with your fork and the rich egg yolk unites all the bitter, crisp green elements like the sunshine over a garden.
Pastry chef Adrienne Odom, long at La Belle Vie, but also in charge of desserts at Spanish sister restaurant Solera, simply works more elegantly and more creatively every single year: Her espresso semifreddo with a warm orange cake and cardamom foam ($10) is one of the best desserts I've ever had. A rectangular tower of half-frozen chocolate coffee fluff is topped with a curlicue wig of candied orange zest curls: Beside the tower rest two unique flavor elements, a pile of ethereal cardamom foam and a warm, buttery orange cake topped with orange segments. The various textures each emphasized the other, the various elements of chocolate and orange each emphasized the floral and fleeting notes of the other. My notes on the night I tried it conclude: "I would eat this any day, any time, and possibly all day any time."
Which is sort of how I feel about La Belle Vie: I kind of wish I could go there every night and always, in the same childish way you might have once wished you could have a big birthday cake every day. Of course, birthdays notoriously lose their luster after a certain age. Or they did, until now. With the momentous, stately grandeur of La Belle Vie, birthdays as an elegant grandparent suddenly seem like a wonderful thing to strive for.
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