How to Succeed in Business

un deux trois owner Michael Morse is alarmingly honest about what a restaurant can really accomplish: "There are only so many things you can do with a piece of fish, a piece of chicken."
Kristine Heykants
café un deux trois
114 South Ninth St., Mpls.; 673-0686

A friend of mine's longtime love is dumping him, because she says he's not successful enough. Successful! Enough! And he's a Fulbright scholar and a sweetheart whose biggest fault is falling for beautiful mean people. It makes my heart curdle--as if accolades from the greater world are something you can control like honesty, kindness, or hard work. As if every artist of the last 200 years hadn't proved that success is nothing but luck and faith. As if Van Gogh, a painter whose canvases sell for the most successful prices imaginable, as if Van Gogh's mom had stood at her son's pauper's grave beaming and saying: "Well, thank goodness that one's a success." As if Jessica Hahn, Gennifer Flowers, and Monica Lewinsky weren't all going to have better-funded biographies than José Saramago, Dario Fo, and Wislawa Szymborska--the Nobel-winning writers of the last three years.

I guess I should be used to it, the quick judgments and fickle hearts of people with calculators for eyes. After all, that 17th-century French quote factory La Rochefoucauld noted that most people judge men only by their success or fortune--and he died in 1680! Have we lost nothing in 300 years but powdered wigs, wooden teeth, and dropsy? Or am I overreacting? Maybe success is only fickle for the sad sacks I run with. Maybe there's some subset of the population that shows up for a first job and is immediately beset by paparazzi.

Success is obviously fickle in restaurants. Time and again I've seen mediocre--but brand-new--restaurants do gangbuster business and run circles around well-established better spots. And how many times have lovely little places succeeded, pulled up whole neighborhoods on their coattails, and been forced out by the increased property values they themselves helped create? Restaurants are a game that requires a philosopher's outlook to enjoy. Luckily, Michael Morse, the proprietor of downtown Minneapolis's café un deux trois, has just such a worldview: "A good percentage of our client base are people that have been real loyal to us for six and a half years, through the good times and the bad times. People who know that every time they come through that door I'm going to be there at that door, and I'm going to know what table they like and what dishes they like," said Morse when I caught up with him on the phone at a nearly quiet moment before un deux trois's busy lunch. "Like me or not--and certainly there are people that do, and certainly there are people that don't--everyone knows that when people come in this restaurant, Michael is there. I'm sure some people wish Michael wasn't there, but there I am."

He laughed at this last bit, not realizing how true this was, and how difficult it had been for me to sneak past him to sample the work of un deux trois's new chef, Vincent Francoual. Francoual has been with the bistro since July, and before that cooked in two of New York's hottest hotspots, the French-cuisine-based restaurants Le Bernardin and Lespinasse.

I managed to get past Morse on several occasions--with the aid of the cutest new wig and my biggest, most distracting friends--and was happy to find that Minneapolis's favorite bistro is just as successful as all get-out. The house standards were all in impeccable form--the beefy French onion soup ($5.50), the gorgeously tender Moules Marinières] (mussels steamed in white wine, garlic, and herbs, $9.50), and the perfect steak au poivre (a New York strip coated with briny green peppercorns, seared and served with a rich demi-glace and real, hand-cut french fries, $24).

More exciting still were the specials, presented on a little paper menu that accompanies the big paper menu (which itself complements the paper tablecloths and cups of crayons: Compulsive doodlers beware, temptation lies here). One night's appetizer was a humble-looking ragout of buttery black trumpet and shiitake mushrooms on a bed of creamy yellow grits ($7.50), whose quiet appearance concealed its luscious concentration of flavor.

Another, even more exquisite special was a timbale of chanterelle mushrooms with duck confit and a roasted garlic vinaigrette ($8.50). In this beautiful dish, fluffy ground chanterelles are molded into a cylinder, cut on the diagonal, served with more mushrooms and a generous dollop of duck confit, and finished with a slightly piquant sauce that offsets the richness of the duck and timbale. In addition to being so tasty, this dish gratified me on a nice, chef's-envy level: I'm all for fresh items simply prepared, but this is the sort of flourish that reminds you what separates the chefs from the cooks.

Fish specials, as expected, stood out as well: a braised grouper pot au feu ($18.50) with tiny carrots, quarter-sized turnips and a buttery parsnip puree was simple, wintry, and perfectly done. Pan-seared ahi tuna with Yukon Gold potatoes ($21) was another perfect piece of fish, brittle outside, silken within, and served with a smoky, slightly acrid kaffir lime leaf vinaigrette which made the oft-seen fish pleasantly surprising.  

Desserts were good, particularly a deeply flavored chocolate mousse ($5), but overall they could have been better or more original. A tarte Tatin ($6) I tried twice was particularly disappointing. The crust was soggy and the apples didn't have any of the caramel topping for which the dessert is famous.

My overall impression of un deux trois is of a place where things do not go wrong--though of course I know they must, sometimes. Service is seamless: Servers are full of good advice and do not forget what you've ordered. Dishes emerge from the kitchen exactly as they should be or better, wines by the glass are never stale, and you get your table at the precise time you reserved it. un deux trois is the sort of place where they'd rather refuse a reservation then promise something they can't deliver. Those are the details that set a restaurant apart from the crowd, and they create the peace of mind you need for delicate negotiations. I can see why un deux trois would be the business restaurant of choice for so many.

Morse is clear-eyed about what a restaurant can really accomplish: "There are only so many things you can do with a piece of fish, a piece of chicken. We all put some parsnip puree and some sauce around it. But when all is said and done, it's a chicken breast. There needs to be something else--free valet parking, an interesting-looking restaurant, some kind of something else that makes somebody say, 'Let's go there.' If you're just going out to have a salad and a nice piece of fish, there's a lot of places you can do that."

Morse follows up this almost alarmingly honest observation with an anecdote that would send chills up the spine of any fame-building chef. It's a story from a few years ago, when a Minneapolis businessman had to entertain a large group of out-of-town clients, including a Japanese man who ate only sushi. Instead of trying to convince the sushi fan that he really could learn to like traditional French bistro food, Morse got in his car, drove to Origami, and got the Japanese client what he wanted. Now, says Morse, that evening's host is a regular customer: "For the $40 we spent on sushi for that gentleman, I got a long-term relationship."

Then he added something I never thought I'd hear a restaurateur say: "There are a lot of restaurants that serve food. We all serve food. I'll never be complacent about what's going on here, because I know that you're only as good as your last performance. Tonight's fish has to be better than last night's fish. You can't win the Pulitzer Prize and then say, 'Well, that's it, I'm done.' The better you get, the higher the expectations become."

A sobering thought, and one that strikes me as actually having some wisdom on the topic of success: It's hard to get, it's hard to keep, it's hard to survive, it doesn't stay still, so it can't be counted or counted on. If you get some, appreciate it. If you need to borrow some, pick the right restaurant. And if someone asks you to produce yours like a calling card, flee.


FANTASY JOURNALISM: Just got my PR kit on The Texas Holiday Cookbook, by Dotty Griffith (Gulf Publishing, $24.95). Charmingly, Gulf Publishing has assumed that I am dumb as dust and lazy as carpet, and has thoughtfully provided me with a list of questions to ask Dotty should I decide to give the Texas Holiday Cookbook the free publicity it so richly deserves. (After all, where else can you learn how to turn pretzel crumbs and limeade concentrate into festive Margarita Balls? Quoth Dotty: "Work quickly, because balls dry quickly.")

After nursing my wounded ego for a while, I've concluded that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If Gulf Publishing wants to steal my shtick and ask all the questions--well, what's left for me to do? Obviously, I'm supposed to sit around and make up the answers. So if I ask Dotty a Gulf Publishing-provided question like: "Why a Texas cookbook?" I can just sit back and imagine that Dotty would answer, "Because there already were just too, too, too many Oklahoma cookbooks, sugar."

If I ask Dotty, "You began your journalistic career as a political and crime reporter. What was the transition like to food?" maybe Dotty would say:  

"Well, it was really very, very pleasant. On the one hand, there were bodies in the streets, and on the other, brownies in the oven. On the one hand, city council meetings. On the other, wine tastings. Robberies--raspberries. Murders--merlots. Election fraud--Elberta peaches! Basically, what you lose in prestige you make up for in tasty snacks, and while I still get the urge to interview a crime victim's grieving family at an inappropriate time, the keen pleasure of setting a box of Margarita Balls in front of an unwitting Northerner more than makes up for it."

Wow. Actually I feel a lot better now. I got through this much faster than if I'd had to waste time dialing the phone. Thanks, Gulf Publishing!

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