Really Fine Dining

Fine fare: Tim McKee previews La Belle Vie's remastered menu
Richard Fleischman


Minneapolis has a lot of restaurants these days that think they're fine dining, but aren't. They don't have the staff, they don't have the gear for the table, they don't have the training, and, frankly, most of the time they don't have a clue. I think of them as platinum-card hillbilly. When I rule the world, government ninjas, probably French government ninjas, will patrol the valet lots, and whenever they find foil pats of butter, pre-squashed, accompanying meals costing a hundred dollars, they'll run in the back and explode eggs in all the microwaves. Whenever a guest seated at a white tablecloth is rammed into more than six times by a passing server, the French ninjas will run in and have the joint reclassified as a roller derby. Whenever a host is promoted to server, good old ninjas will rush in with scent kits to poke that person with ficelles until he or she can identify corked wine. What are ficelles? Oooh, I'm glad you asked. They're like skinny loaves of French bread, but fancier!

My long regional nightmare is coming to a close, and I can finally say ficelle in public, because, hot darn, La Belle Vie is opening in Minneapolis. Fine dining will never be the same!

Now, La Belle Vie, in case you're new here, has been the standard-bearer for truly fine dining in Minnesota ever since chef and co-owner Tim McKee left D'Amico Cucina to open his Stillwater restaurant in early 1998, taking with him various assets, including his accolades as one of America's top young chefs, his former sous-chef and future business partner Josh Thoma, and his manager and wine guru Bill Summerville. The restaurant built its reputation as the only one in the greater metro where the food was exquisite and the rest of the restaurant did nothing to detract from it: the fine level of table service, the beautiful wine list, the French cheeses like little quails in nests, the works. I still remember the first meal I had at La Belle Vie, the yellow turnip ravioli, tremulous as raindrops...oh, those were the days.

But, time passed. La Belle Vie begat Solera, the giant Spanish tapas bar downtown; Solera begat some capital, allowing the LBV crew to dream a little bigger, and voilà! October (knock wood) should see the opening of La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. As I type, they are busily transforming the old 510 Restaurant space into something contemporary and, if my telephonically communicated understanding is correct, perhaps even taupe-like.

The new La Belle Vie will have two parts: a bar and lounge, and a real, be-still-my-heart, serious fine-dining dining room. What's a serious fine-dining dining room? One with tablecloths, flowers, and candlelight. Real crystal for the wine (in this case, Riedel). Fancy china, namely Rosenthal and Limoges Bernadaud. "They let Thomas Keller design his own, which for some reason I wasn't able to do," mused McKee when I spoke to him for this story.

It should have the sort of wine cellar that makes a wine lover's heart lilt a little with anticipation. Of course, a truly great fine-dining restaurant should be able to make a sewer worker with a taste for lawnmower beer feel like a well-respected king, because that is what it means to provide hospitality and be gracious, and, of course, that's just manners, but the high-end stuff is what separates, shall we say, the hillbillies from the platinum.

So exactly how much platinum are you going to have to part with to get in here? McKee says he'll have an à la carte menu, but the main focus will be on seven-course tasting menus priced at $75 or so. At first, I thought this was pretty reasonable, especially considering the 10 restaurants in town where two courses, served by a kid in jeans who can't tell a Riesling from a pickle barrel, run dangerously toward $50. Later, I got a glimpse at one of his proposed tasting menus, and it seemed like a straight-up bargain: marinated raw prawns with osetra caviar in shrimp consommé; lobster and pumpkin cappelletti with coral sabayon and black truffles; caramelized, poached foie gras with Banyuls-braised Forelle pears; roasted squab with cauliflower croquette, golden raisins, Moroccan spices...and that's before half-time.

Word has it that the tables are oversized and generously spaced: La Belle Vie is hosting about two-thirds as many seats as the old 510 got into the same area.

The lounge, modeled after New York hot spots like Milk and Honey and Angel's Share, will be the kind of place where cocktails will be as original and completely conceived as food. One as-yet-unnamed concoction will combine Calvados and apple cider with a complicated syrup derived from fresh-poached quince, orange zest, cinnamon, and other real kitchen ingredients. There will be a special lounge snack menu too--think finger foods, taken to heights. Baby vegetables you can dip in a truffle fondue. Classic Mediterranean fritto misto (various mixed fried things) with crayfish, rock shrimp, and haricots verts, tossed with watercress and garlic.  

When will this extravaganza of fine living throw open its doors? Sometime in October, most likely, or perhaps early November. I must say I really like the way things are shaping up here: Five, the Stuart Woodman restaurant and lounge, has opened a scant dozen blocks to the south, and now, for a dozen blocks along Hennepin Avenue to the north, we've got La Belle Vie, 20.21, Solera, Cosmos, and, soon enough, we'll also have Spice Market in there (in the hotel coming to the corner of 9th and Hennepin). I've long thought that the thing we really lack as a restaurant city was real competition and critical mass, and with all these fine-dining temples in a row, and Auriga and 112 Eatery just on the periphery, it looks like the fun is just beginning. And that it may finally be time for some of those platinum hillbillies to get a little overwhelmed. La Belle Vie, 510 Groveland, Minneapolis, 612.874.6440



First, an actually viable restaurant took on the notorious restaurant-slaying corner of 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue. Fancy lofts sprang up on two of Nicollet's premier trash-strewn empty lots. A Starbucks and a Waldorf school popped up. Now, sushi, yes, sushi, a full-blown sushi bar, is appearing on Nicollet, in the city-abandoned wilds between the Lake Street K-Mart and I-94. It boggles the mind. Can you imagine what would happen if the city actually spent a dollar and restored the mighty avenue it destroyed with the K-Mart? I can barely imagine; I think the Louvre would probably just pick itself up from its foundations and hustle across the globe to replace that self-service car wash at the street's dead end.

What sushi bar? Well, I'll tell you what sushi bar! In the next storefront south of Azia, and, conveniently enough, it will be owned by Azia. It's going to be called Anenomie, which I think is a wonderful name, except that the choice of spelling means all the Waldorf children will now have a terrible, secret Achilles heel whenever they end up in spelling bees contemplating certain sea animals with crowns of stinging tentacles at the tops of fleshy stalks. Oh well, to each generation their hurdles, I suppose.

Anenomie hasn't named a sushi chef yet. Owner Tom Pham says he's narrowing his picks from a national search, with top contenders in such far-flung places as Kansas City, New Jersey, California, and Las Vegas. Don't you kind of want to take up a fund to airlift the one out of Kansas City? I keep trying to think of sushi in Kansas City, but I only keep thinking of fried chicken and biscuits. Speaking of things that are good to eat that you don't often see in the same paragraph, Anenomie will also function as an oyster bar.

And it will have the best sake list in Minnesota. I know this as fact, because it will share that list with Azia, which has done fantastic work developing its list these last several years. Today Azia sells some 20 varieties of the Japanese rice wine, many of which are far better than the generic ones you've grown used to in every single sushi bar--better because they're made from higher-grade rice, made in smaller batches, and more carefully made, with more hand labor. Which, needless to say, makes them deathly more expensive, which is why it's so important to spend the next few minutes memorizing Azia's everyday happy hour times (from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.) when you can try the top-shelf sake (and all the rest) for half-price. Remember, it's not just drinking--it's educational. And if you learn very, very much, you might even figure out some way to inspire the little Waldorf children to bring down the K-Mart. Azia, 2550 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612.813.1200;



Finally, do you remember all those conversations you had in high school, and in the wee hours at First Avenue, conjuring up all the things you would do one day, and how awesome it would be? Well, score one for the dreamers: In a month or so, Pandora's Cup, the Hennepin Avenue coffee shop with the fun second-story outside deck, will turn into duplex, an American bistro and wine bar. It all started in Moorhead, Minnesota, years and years ago, when chef Michael Hart, longtime Café Zander veteran, and Michael Trebnick got to dreaming. It continued when Sonja Hayden and Trebnick met, working at First Avenue, and spent the wee hours dreaming and falling in love. Soon the three picked up the long-running conversation while they were all working at the Giorgio's on Hennepin. Hayden and Trebnick spent the intervening years turning the duplex on Hennepin into the thriving, if scruffy, coffee shop Pandora's Cup, and getting married; Hart spent seven and a half years wielding a knife at Zander.  

Now the three are partners in duplex--no capitalization, please--which will specialize in bold flavors brought to life through local ingredients and bold wines, offering an affordable experience: Expect dinner entrees in the $12 to $20 range. Hart says his menu will focus on "simple, homey food" with a kick: a bison Salisbury steak stuffed with foie gras butter and a mushroom sauce, with steamed broccoli, for instance. Seared scallops with puttanesca sauce. "I love roasted beets or roasted squash, and things like gumbo, cioppino, flavors that are hearty and intense, but not heavy."

There's definitely a lot of love in duplex. "We love this building," Sonja Hayden told me when I spoke to her for this item, "and we're kind of nuts to plan a restaurant where the kitchen is on one level and the dining room is on another, but it will be a great cardiovascular workout. You know, I've just always dreamed of sitting out on our porch with a glass of wine, and now I'll be able to."

See? Fairy tales do come true, it could happen to you, if you only keep hold of your dreams, and have enough leg strength to run up and down the stairs all night. duplex restaurant and wine bar; 2516 Hennepin Ave S., Minneapolis; 612.381.0700



This is a private, inspirational, and yet somewhat nagging message to the young chefs in the house: Never break down your stations too early, and fear not the lousy closing shifts. Why? Consider the case of Auriga a few weeks ago. It was a sleepy Sunday night, 10 minutes before kitchen close, when a four-top blundered in, straight from the airport and a missed connecting flight. The kitchen crew had already begun cleaning up for the night when an enormous order came in. A quick peek at the dining room revealed none other than Wiley Dufresne, chef of hotter-than-hot New York restaurant WD-50. Word has it all the cooks sautéed their little hearts out, and Dufresne later visited the kitchen to extend compliments and an invitation to take care of them when they were next in Manhattan. Crazy, right? Remember, kids, blessed are those who get stuck cleaning out the grease traps, for they shall inherit the earth!

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Azia Restaurant - Closed

2550 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404


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