Space Beehives and Champagne

Cheers to Champagne cocktails: Bartender Josh Enwright hoists the Amour Marie
Jayme Halbritter
Louis XIII
2670 Southdale Center, Edina

You've heard it, I've heard it, we've all chuckled to ourselves: Every Day I Need Attention, the tell-tale acronym of the spoiled, difficult Edina girl. I thought it was pretty funny, too. Until the day I began to think it was less funny, and more illuminating of a specific local pathology. I mean, what are the slogans for the rest of us?

Minneapolis: Thriving on neglect!

St. Paul: Don't even look at me, I don't deserve it.

Eden Prairie: It'll probably stop bleeding on its own.

Columbia Heights: You've got better things to do.

Blaine: A card once a year, that's all I ask.

St. Louis Park: Over my dead body will I tell you why we divorced.

Seriously, think about it. You've got a cat, a kid, maybe even some upper bicuspids--hey, your teeth need attention twice a day, the needy brats! Only in the self-sacrificing Lutheran North would needing attention rank in with the ordinary sins of gluttony, avarice, and replacing something that could be repaired.

Which brings us to Louis XIII, the new Edina restaurant of David Fhima, the chef/impresario behind the Mpls Café in Minneapolis, Fhima's in downtown St. Paul, and, if things go well, another restaurant this fall in Lowertown St. Paul, called LoTo, and, in 2005, a restaurant and nightclub in the old Northern Lights Records space, on Seventh and Hennepin. If you haven't yet been to a Fhima restaurant, what you need to know is that they are, above all, atmospheric, offering the best parts of nightclubs--music, often live, dancing; glamorous decor; festive cocktails; a see-and-be-seen vibe--alongside food that reads as "fancy" and refers in some way to Fhima's French heritage, which he leavens with various influences. At Louis XIII that influence is Asian. Fhima restaurants are not, in my experience, concerned foremost with the food: They are, essentially, nightclubs for people who go to dinner. On those terms, Louis XIII, or, as the Fhima crew calls it, Treize, is without question the most successful Fhima restaurant yet.

It's successful because of the wryly sexy and amusing design and decor, and because of the wryly sexy and amusing Champagne cocktails. The restaurant faces the Southdale parking lot and is all glass, light, and white, with a few witty quotations from French Baroque art--the facade has a sort of transparent print of lovely French maidens' faces on it, for example. In the lounge, and out on the patio, an army of transparent Phillipe Starck's ghost chairs make the room look like a movie set for cocktails in space. A white rectangular bar separates the lounge area from the dining area, which begins with a series of cathedral-height muslin hoop-skirt beehives enclosing circular white booths; behind that is an enormous glassed-in terrarium for chefs. The rest of the dining rooms are behind all of this, or in the basement, and they're nowhere near as exciting as the front of the house--these rooms are merely lined with acres of red or blue velvet drapes, and feel like what an indie-film decorator would do when required to turn an airplane hangar into something resembling a restaurant. (Even though I've dined in these rooms repeatedly, I can never shake the feeling that they're provisional.) However, if you're lucky enough to snag a seat within the space beehives, order a Champagne cocktail and celebrate: You're in some of the most stylish real estate in Minnesota.

Actually, order a Champagne cocktail even if you end up back in the blue room--they're so much fun. The Lost in Mexico ($7) is bubbly with a bite--it's got some house-made habañero-infused tequila in it, and comes topped with a feather cut from a lime peel--fun! The Americana, made with a touch of bourbon and a bitters-soaked Demerara sugar cube, is toasty, subtle, and evocative. There are nearly two dozen Champagne cocktails, and if you've ever thought, My life could use a little less perfume of toner cartridges, and a little more perfume of Barbarella-starlight, look no further.

The food at Treize runs the gamut from quite good to completely indifferent. I couldn't tell you what predicts which. Some of the best things I've had at Treize include a generous charcuterie plate ($13.50), filled with all sorts of charming tastes, like a creamy truffle-chicken-liver pâté, slices of a hot garlic salami and another milder one, olives, a country pâté, two sorts of mustard, fresh roll-ups of mortadella, a champagne flute full of fresh, hot grilled bread slices--in short, everything you would love to set in front of a beer or a glass of red wine before or after a movie. I also loved the short ribs one night ($23), sweet, caramelized, sweet, laquered beef ribs that fell off the bone as a sweet pudding of rich meaty flavors--did I mention they were sweet? They were so sweet that the fig halves that they lay upon tasted like potatoes, but it was a smart, concentrated, appealing sweet; if you can imagine the things you most love about classically sweet baby-back pork ribs combined with everything you like about pot roast, you'll get the idea. A nightly special of Asian bouillabaisse ($24.95) was also adventurous and accomplished: A sweet, highly perfumed coconut-milk-touched broth was filled with bright pink curls of shrimp, plump diver-caught scallops, fat strips of ocean fish, a few earthy spirals of long bean twirling through the otherwise lilting bowl--this dish was almost ebullient in its freshness and zest. There were some odd croutons on it--tasteless planks covered with a thin layer of mashed potatoes and a wasabi squiggle, which added little to the assemblage--but hey, I'm not the kind of girl to get too worked up about an odd crouton.  

I have a little less equanimity when it comes to dishes marred by catastrophic inattention. At Treize I've also had outright disasters such as a Vietnamese niçoise salad ($13.50), which hosted a dozen shriveled, past-prime cherry tomatoes that tasted spoiled, little rectangles of tamago omelet that were, for some odd reason, soaked through with water--to round it out, the dressing on the bowl of chopped squares of romaine was too sharp, the purple potatoes in the corners of the bowl were hard and dry, and it was impossible to think that any kind of chef had looked at the plate and decided it should get anywhere near a guest. I've had soft-shell crab that was alarmingly mealy. I've had rare duck breast that sat so long beneath a heat lamp that the top layer began to turn brownish, and the whole thing was so tough it might as well have been duck jerky. Like I said, I just don't know what dictates when you'll get which. Which is a pity, because these lapses really do seem to be some kind of heroic effort in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Surely creating this kind of triumph of design is harder than getting a cook to pay attention to whether the tomatoes are getting to look like raisins?

I don't know. In any event, I always found the desserts capable and reliable. A simple fruit tart with strawberries and blueberries ($6.95) was nicely sturdy and homemade; a section of a towering croquembouche ($6.95), cream puffs filled with custard and lassoed together with sugar, was humble and satisfying.

The wine list could take a bit of a lesson from the modest dessert program, because it is uselessly long--it goes on for pages and pages, listing some 1,300 bottles, and my advice is that when they hand this telephone book over to a guest they should also hand over a stack of Post-Its, reading glasses, a can of Red Bull, and an extra hour from the time-space continuum. If you choose everything, you choose nothing! Any wine geek will find plenty to like on the list--hey, at 1,300 bottles, what are the odds?--but there's also plenty of junk to trip up a novice; I pity the fool that ends up with a drastically past-prime 1999 Beaujolais for $46. Most bottles are priced at the standard two to three times retail, and, if you visited the restaurant soon after its late May opening, please know that they have debuted a normal glass-pour wine list to replace that bizarre opening strategy, in which glasses were priced by varietal and the winery was anyone's guess. Much has changed, actually, since the restaurant first got going at the beginning of the summer: The menu's maddening two-point type has been replaced by a normal font, many dishes are cheaper, brunch is gone, a cute little kids' menu has debuted, and, with the initial restaurant-buzz dead, the service is loads better. In fact, I'd say if the place was a little less ambitious and a little less expensive, it might even stand a chance of racking up some of the hour-plus waits that still--still! still! still! Oh, the humanity!--define the Cheesecake Factory , a few hundred feet west of Treize.

Take a tour of the chain restaurants that lie on that edge of Southdale--the Cheesecake Factory, the P.F. Chang's, the Maggiano's Little Italy--and Louis XIII will start to look like the most valiant underdog. (By the way, I just checked Maggiano's website, where they maintain that their joint is "often said to be reminiscent of pre-World War II Little Italy." Often said by whom? Anyone who often says this ought to often get kicked.) Everywhere I went on this Vegas-on-France strip, folks were waiting an hour, or more, for what? I suppose that some people just walk around muttering: Every day, every day I need an almost average adequacy affirmed.  

I'll take attention over that. And, I think a lot of Edina lasses will, too--in fact, on my last visit to Treize, there was but a single man seated at the great white bar. One mustachioed older man, looking uncomfortable at the end of a ring of beautiful young women with perfect hair and purses of significant fashion import, all of whom were sipping glasses of wine or nuzzling Champagne cocktails. All around him these clutches of cuties celebrated birthdays, made short work of bottles of wine, and generally cleared the decks of important business before moving on to the conquests of the evening. As I sat there wondering whether the room was simply too elegant to ever be penetrated by the average sports-beer-and-office-work Edina guy, the presence of the mustachioed man grew ever stranger. He didn't seem to be there to mack on the ladies, and so, why on earth? Why? My answer came suddenly when a trio of tiny Edina honeys flew in the door, a perfumed storm of tousled blond haloes and squealing delight. They embraced Dad and then in came Mom a few seconds later. By the time the group found their table for a big birthday celebration, I felt quite serene to know that some happy little heads would doze off on their pillows that night, full of the attention they quite rightly desire.

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