St. Genevieve reveals the art of snacks and Champagne at any time of day

Poulpe niçoise is just about as approachable as an octopus tentacle could be.

Poulpe niçoise is just about as approachable as an octopus tentacle could be. Sasha Landskov

The best parts of life don’t have to begin at five o’clock. Stroll past a bar or bistro in France, and it is likely to be filled with revelers at any time of day.

Even if you’ve never been to France, St. Genevieve’s evocation of a little Gallic bistro is undeniable. The dining room is understated, and chic to the nth degree, with a soft light that envelops everything. As your reflection bounces off the mirrored walls, it’s impossible not to feel beautiful here. Your Monday night just became April in Paris; your date is Cary Grant.

While the room is surely très élégant, the real surprise is the lack of pretense. Hosts and servers are decked out in their most comfortable summer wear — khaki shorts and deck shoes; summer jumpers and straight-to-the-beach sundresses for the ladies. Owner Steven Brown tells his staff to always dress like they’re going on a first date. Dress to impress, but don’t look like you’re trying too hard. It works. Service is comfortably familiar, affable, helpful. You instantly feel that people are happy here. People smile here.

Menu headers are in French, which is lovely if you speak French, but could be off-putting if you do not. So if you, like I do, fall in the latter category, pretend that you are wearing some kind of blinders, and then just simply look off to the left, where the key ingredient is listed, plain as day, all in bold like this: CHICKEN & SHRIMP. See? You don’t need to know what “poulet quasi-étouffée” even means.

The filigreed menu script, excellent service, and bathwater-warm lighting might initially convince you that St. Genevieve is fancy. And in some ways it is. Champagne by the bottle is almost always fancy. It’s also almost always simple and good. Read between the lines here at St. Genevieve, and you will come to see the food is just the same: simple and good.

The “tartines” are nothing more than delicious open-faced sandwiches, some of them indeed covered in escargot, roasted oyster mushrooms, and very good Gruyère cheese, but others more familiar. Take the elegant but straightforward BLT, with jowl bacon, lettuce, and tomato; or the ribeye steak with braised mustard greens and little green hoops of pickled ramps. Forget the word “tartine” and it’s just the best steak sandwich you’ve ever had.

The whimsical and fun sweet corn sundae

The whimsical and fun sweet corn sundae Sasha Landskov

Poulpe niçoise is a tender little octopus tentacle, paired with the familiar flavors of tomato, green bean, egg, potato, and olive. It’s just about as approachable as an octopus tentacle could be, which turns out to be pretty darn approachable.

A simple salad is best-of-the-season juicy Sucrine lettuce with herbs, a dusting of good Emmentaler cheese, one of those soft-cooked eggs that you can never do at home, and a housemade vinaigrette made from rosé wine. It’s perfect.

The pommes frites are not the sleek little slivers of fried potato you’ve come to know from other bistros, but more like McDonald’s fries, which is precisely where Brown drew his inspiration. He grew up on McDonald’s, just like you and me. If you asked for some ketchup and closed your eyes, you might even think that’s what you were having.

A sweet corn sundae comes with popcorn ice cream and popped sorghum that looks for all the world like Barbie-doll-sized popcorn kernels. It’s whimsical and fun. Kids can get either shrimp and rice or a grilled cheese plus peas and carrots or French fries. What kind of kid do you have? A shrimp-and-peas kid or a French-fry one? At St. Genevieve, the experience is hers to choose, just as it is yours.

St. Genevieve also does entrees, dishes like pork tenderloin with cheese grits, celeriac, remoulade, and an onion puff. And if you are the kind of person who must have an entree, then you can have one. But I think dining this way (protein-starch-veg) takes away from the very point of St. Genevieve.

Here, life is not about doing the practical thing, or the healthy thing, or the traditional thing. This place is about doing what you please, at whatever time. It’s about throwing off the shackles of ordinary life, and looking good while you do it under the butter-colored lights. So order some popcorn ice cream and another glass of bubbles and have only snacks for dinner and be happy, won’t you?

Which brings us to the matter of Champagne and wine. For those of us paralyzed by a lengthy wine list, we know that the more comprehensive the list, the more profound the paralysis. We scan for the things we know and like, feel immediate relief upon finding them, and order. Problem solved. But at St. Genevieve, it would be foolhardy to ignore the bulk of the beautiful list in favor of the familiar. Champagne is almost always a good idea, and here they have a surfeit of it and an equal amount of knowledge. Even more than that, they’ve got genuine enthusiasm to tell you all about it.

Discover that Crémant is simple wine made in the Champagne tradition outside of Champagne, and typically, happily, costs a few dollars less per glass. Or learn that the Côte des Blancs is a slope that owes its name to the color of the grape that is planted there. Champagnes in this area include the term “blanc de blancs.”

And while these things are interesting to know, they’re much more delicious to taste.

Life can get drab and even happy hour, the best hour, can begin to seem rote, predictable, and unspecial. Sliders and cheap beer, again? When it’s time to infuse things with some elegance, some French, and some bubbles at two in the afternoon, might we suggest St. Genevieve?

Challenge your expectations of a French restaurant, and what you’ll find is a place offering something fundamentally straightforward and high quality. Indulge and be reminded that the best parts of life can begin before five. And what a lovely life it can be.

St. Genevieve
5003 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis