La Belle Vie offers exquisite fare for $12 or less in the Lounge

To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

Tim McKee's fingerprints are scattered around the Twin Cities. And we all eat better because of it. The first Minnesotan to be anointed Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, McKee is a culinary chameleon of the best kind.

Having spearheaded some of our most celebrated restaurants (La Belle Vie and Sea Change), he's morphed into a gun-for-hire as of late, offering his talents to Masu Sushi and Robata, Uptown Cafeteria, and the recently defunct Il Gatto. To date we've seen him do everything from seafood to sushi, classy to casual, tapas to tequila, pasta to pirates.

But La Belle Vie was the original--the first restaurant he opened--so that's where we're headed for our next $12-and-under delights. For a chef who's at home in so many different surroundings, it's no wonder that a fantastic night at La Belle Vie can be wrapped in a variety of packages.

No, McKee hasn't gone crazy and turned the place into a bad '80's dance club. La Belle Vie still has white tablecloths and provides the finest of fine food. But the thought of it being stuffy or boring makes partner and wine aficionado Bill Summerville cringe: "To me, formal begins with an 'f' and is a four-letter word."

"We can offer two experiences," says Summerville. "We can show people an elegant, serene, sophisticated evening in the dining room. Or still give them complex and beautiful food, but be more relaxed about it in the lounge. We welcome a wide range of diners and tailor the experience to the guest."

With its crescent-shaped couches, throw pillows, and small tables for two or four, the lounge is the perfect foil to the dining room. The large leather booths tucked in the corners beg you to linger, and the bar beckons you to pull up a seat and watch Johnny Michaels--one of the premiere mixologists in the metro--work his magic.

Summerville tells us, "When I was interviewing bartenders six years ago, I asked everyone, 'What about you will make me crazy in six months?'" Michaels's response was, "I don't smile a lot." Summerville chuckles, "A bartender who doesn't smile? But people love him."

Michaels draws fans from all walks of life, which often creates an interesting dynamic in the lounge. On any given night, there may be a bunch of laid-back 20somethings grabbing a drink alongside theatergoers dressed to the nines. But that's okay. "Our staff can switch gears from tattoos to tuxedos," says Summerville.

While the drinks and people-watching are great, tonight we're here for the food. The La Belle Vie Lounge has some incredible dishes under $12, and chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp ducks out of the kitchen to explain how he prepares a few of our favorites.

The Truffled Crêpe with Jambon Royal, Brie de Meaux, and Slow-Cooked Egg Yolk is an impressive creation with a ton of classic French elements. The delicate crêpe is made with chives and a little truffle oil and filled with Jambon Royal (ham that's been roasted with herbs), Brie de Meaux (a soft cheese produced just outside Paris), and a mustard béchamel (one of the basic "mother sauces" in French cooking).

It's sliced into three sections and then accompanied by an egg yolk and a dollop of gribiche. Gribiche is a French cousin to tartar sauce, and DeCamp makes his version with hardboiled eggs, cornichons, white vinegar, parsley, and olive oil. Priced at $10, the crêpe is wonderfully rich and creamy, and the gribiche gives it a pickley bite.

If you're in the mood for classic bar food--albeit very refined classic bar food--the Grilled Lamb Burgers with Mint Yogurt and Hot Pepper are a real winner. DeCamp begins by seasoning the lamb patties with a Moroccan spice blend called ras el hanout, one of several nods to North Africa in the dish. Placed inside a homemade bun, he slathers a minty yogurt tahini aioli on the burgers and adds a roasted and peeled poblano pepper that's taken a dip in garlic and olive oil.

The plate is then garnished with cornichons and spicy olives that have been coated in charmoula--a dressing of sorts that contains cilantro, parsley, garlic, paprika, cayenne, cumin, saffron, salt and pepper. For $11, it's savory, satisfying, and has a spicy kick.

But for our official $12 and under pick, we're going pasta. The Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese and Porcini to be exact. To make the bolognese, DeCamp deploys an army of ingredients: ground rabbit, carrot, onion, celery, chicken livers, guanciale, speck, prosciutto, tomato, and milk.

It's served over wide house-made noodles that have been tossed with porcini butter and then finished with some nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh parsley. With so many amazing flavors, it's a $12 masterpiece that hits all the right notes. DeCamp jokes: "The bolognese will probably never come off the menu, because the lounge regulars would kill us if it did."

As excited as we are to see the next thing Tim McKee has up his sleeve, we're happy to see that some things are going to stay the same.

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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La Belle Vie - Closed

510 Groveland Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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