Recently, there has been quite the hubbub over the fine dining scene in Minneapolis, in particular. What has been thought of as the crown jewel, La Belle Vie, is closing. Vincent A Restaurant will be done at the end of the year. People are talking, wondering, making last pilgrimages to La Belle Vie as one would visit a friend who’s not moving away, but moving on completely. You’ll find me in Vincent’s bar before every show at Orchestra Hall before the new year, ordering my usual: the Vincent Burger, poutine, and a mini-crème brûlée. This time last year, I was in this dining room for Restaurant Week, enjoying a more upscale entrée.
When I think of an evening out, rather than just eating out, I tend toward nicer places, with an emphasis on the middle. Much like the rest of my life’s style. Not black-tie formal, not super-casual, but business dress. Not an extrovert, not an introvert, but an ambivert. Not so fancy to be out of my element, not too humble to be less-than-remarkable, but a comfortable, quality in-between. Such meals are my spin on fine dining, which is hardly on point. So, I have to wonder, what is fine dining? What’s considered fine dining in our metropolitan area in particular? And, in a more useful tone, what would be considered the finest wining and dining to be found in some of the menus around the towns? I asked and I received some great guidance from some knowledgeable voices of people with a great breadth and depth of experience. I hope you find it to be engaging and educational as well.
WHAT IS FINE DINING?
At this moment in time, under these circumstances in the restaurant scene in Minneapolis, I’m grateful to have consulted with the ever-gracious Chef Tim McKee, the man behind La Belle Vie and the development of other restaurants such as Libertine, Chino Latino, Manny’s, Smalley’s Caribbean BBQ & Pirate Bar, Barrio, Sea Change, and Masu Sushi & Robata. Being a James Beard Award Winner and the man whose restaurant just auctioned off its final meal for $37,000 to benefit the Share Our Strength charity that works to end childhood hunger, he’s a good one to ask about what fine dining means. No, there will not be one set definition of the term, but his definition is a good place to start.
“One thing is that we talk a lot about fine dining and what it means; fine dining to a lot of people is misunderstood,” McKee explains. “A lot of people’s definitions would fall into the fancy dining categories. For me, I have a pretty specific understanding of what fine dining is and this is through years of experiencing it throughout the country in different ways.”
And here’s where we split the hair, leaving us with food, service, and style that all create the total fine dining package. “When you’re talking about the upper end of dining, it’s not just the food. Having exceptional food is part of what makes the experience, but you can have exceptional food without it being fine dining.” McKee clarifies, “It has to have an elevated style of service. The appointments of the dining room have to be finer. A lot of what we call fine dining is casual dining, done exceptionally well.”
Randy Stanley, owner of 6Smith on the waterfront in Wayzata, agrees with the assessment that fine dining is defined by a high level of quality, and the execution of the three elements that make a restaurant a restaurant: food, service, and atmosphere. “For a fine dining establishment to be considered fine dining, the foods should be creative and on point with the concept, raw products should be the finest, and likely, most expensive available, both perfectly and consistently executed. The service should be flawless and seamlessly delivered by experienced, well-trained employees committed to the industry. The atmosphere should be upscale, refined, and luxurious.”
Many of us draw on memories from our childhoods when we set our expectations for fine dining. In the case of Olivier Vrambout, owner and chef of L’Etoile du Nord in Bayport, his childhood was in Belgium, and his family ate at many “old castles and Michelin-star restaurants where the waiters would wear white gloves and hold your chairs as you got up to leave. The decors of the inside were stark, and almost museum-like.” Though that was 25 years ago for Vrambout and dining is more casual now, he acknowledges that “there are still some places where you would need to dress the part to feel comfortable in the environment. And, I think dressing up is a part of showing respect to the chef or owner — who dedicate themselves to the harsh working hours of the business.”
Much of what fine dining involves is what we as diners come to expect. What do we want to experience, above and beyond a tremendous meal? “Fine dining diners expect an ambience with soft lighting, linen-covered tables, fresh flowers, candles, and beautiful china and glassware,” says Michelle Jensen, general manager of Café & Bar Lurcat next to Loring Park in Minneapolis. “Fine dining service requires an exceptionally educated staff. On the floor, they are confident and showcase points of service that you won’t see in our neighboring restaurants. Synchronized service, swarm clearing, giving the guest the right of way — we acknowledge and welcome every guest that walks past us, fold their napkins when they leave the table and before they return, carry beverages from the bar to their table for dinner, as just a few examples,” Jensen offers. “Our seasoned staff takes great pride in their craft.”
Josh Duffy, general manager of Campiello in Eden Prairie, echoes the sentiment that fine dining has changed over the last 10 years. “The atmosphere of the fine dining restaurant has been relaxed a little; however, one of the things that separates fine dining restaurants and other restaurants would be the attention to detail. For example,” Duffy explains, “we may not have dress codes any more, but we make sure our servers are serving and clearing with the correct hand from the correct side of the guest. We also refold the napkin if a guest excuses themselves from the table so the table looks perfect at all times. These are the types of little things that guests with a lot of fine dining experience notice and appreciate.”
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Will Selin, corporate executive chef at Masu Sushi & Robata
When I think of fine dining in the Twin Cities today, I think of Piccolo, Tilia, and Restaurant Alma, among others. Of course, they don’t have the same focus as La Belle Vie with linens and service, etcetera. You don’t have that experience of being awed and intimidated when walking into the dining room. There were more restaurants like that in the ’50s and ’60s. Today fine dining is more approachable. The lines are more blurred between fine and casual dining. Today fine dining is defined more by the chef’s finesse, and farm-to-table conscientious consumption. It’s about chefs that spend the time to do their research, take the time to perfect their craft. They make a point to stay current with food trends and ingredients. In this town, we expect the guy whose name is on the door to be the person who is actually cooking the food.
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CLOSER TO FINE
So what is the future of fine dining? “The closing of La Belle vie speaks volumes,” says McKee. “People, at least in this region, aren’t as interested and don’t value fine dining as much as they once did. That’s been on a decline in this market and it has been for quite some time. We saw the 510 come and go, Goodfellows come and go, D’Amico Cucina come and go. Evidence of the decline. But we also saw the proliferation of the casual restaurants that don’t have the formality or pomp and circumstance of fine dining. They’re not as imposing as fine dining should be. You have to have a lot of experience to be truly comfortable in the fine dining restaurants and there’s a cost that comes with it. Nationally, the trend is prevalent. There’s not nearly as much focus on fine dining nationally as there is the exciting new, accessible restaurants. You could go to these restaurants every day.”
And many of us do. When I think of how simply wearing what I donned in the morning for a day of work and pulling out my smartphone to make a reservation on an app can mean I’m going to have a high-quality meal at a mid-range price this evening, it’s just that easy. I had to do nothing to prepare myself for a fine meal by people who know their craft and their audience. Like spinning a globe and seeing where my finger lands, it has to do with being open to a bit of adventure, within the limits of what’s available. And we have a nice, full set of options here.
“Fine dining revolves around the overall experience — a culinary adventure,” says Ryan Cook, chef de cuisine at Sea Change. And in that vein, we have fine dining in spades.
Eric Dayton, owner of world-renowned restaurant The Bachelor Farmer, is familiar with the evolution of dining in Minneapolis. As said by Dayton, “I think fine dining today emphasizes the quality of food and service, just as it always has, but without the formality that defined it in the past. The Minneapolis restaurant scene has come a long way over the past 10 or so years and will only get stronger, but I think you’ll find that white tablecloths are going to become increasingly rare.”
As an innovator in the food and drink scene with The Marvel Bar holding its own beneath the blue-and-white-gingham tableclothed restaurant, Dayton is now developing a more casual eating space that will house a niche both literally and figuratively in their set of buildings in the North Loop. Having moved their flagship Askov-Finlayson store and offices to the building next to The Bachelor Farmer, there will now be space between the buildings for a food and drink garden. It will be a one-stop destination for formal and casual fare, with the option of checking out some Warby Parkers to boot.
As Vrambout observes, “Today I think people want to enjoy a great, creative meal in more of a come-as-you-are manner. Decor now is livelier, more open, more inviting. Menus are more balanced between a combination of fusion and cultural ingredients. Ingredients are more about their source. The ingredients tell the story, a know-your-farmer, know-your-food kind of thing.”
A less starched-collar environment lends itself to authenticity of experience. By being relaxed, the diners can take in what’s coming to them. Jensen tells us that the folks at Café & Bar Lurcat consider it to be a “very approachable fine dining experience versus the uptight feeling that some guests feel when dining in a place that doesn’t feel comfortable and welcoming because of the stuffiness stigma.” One that they hone to be as versatile and welcoming to many different people.
Wise Acre Eatery has perfected the art of knowing itself, its place, and its people. On Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis, it’s a restaurant owned by a farm, led by a chef with Southern roots, and “falls smack dab in the middle of formal and casual dining,” says general manager Caroline Glawe. “The building is an old gas station filled with chunky wooden tables built from salvaged wood. The floors are concrete, the walls baked enamel. Staff wear clothes reflective of their personal style. They do not crumb tables. They do, however, offer freshly cracked pepper, are knowledgable about the wine list, can speak of the farm where most of our food is grown, and sincerely care about the customer experience.”
I can attest to this personally as I’ve shared many a meal there with friends, eating out of jars and admiring just how attentive a staff can be without an ounce of pretension.
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Morphing Through Time
Caroline Glawe, general manager of Wise Acre Eatery
I think fine dining, dining out in general, morphs over time. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the trend was nouvelle cuisine with an emphasis on plating and presentation of food prepared in a lighter, healthier style. By the time the ‘90s hit, the nouvelle cuisine movement finally hit Minneapolis and you saw restaurants like Lucia’s excelling at food simply prepared and exquisitely plated. Molecular gastronomy was on the heels of nouvelle cuisine, bringing its science, and pushing the boundaries of what we understood food to be. Currently, the conversation involves local farms and farmers, who are often highlighted on the menu itself.
At one time, fine dining demanded white linen tablecloths and napkins, book-size wine lists, and formally dressed back waiters at the ready to crumb tables. I think we as an American people have found great comfort in casual. We no longer dress up to board an airplane, bedroom slippers are accepted foot attire for grocery shopping, and the dress code for dining out is comfy casual. Friendly, knowledgeable service trumps snooty pretension. Fine dining rings of special occasion.
These days, we (thankfully) see more women leading the kitchen, proving that leading a kitchen is not a gender-specific vocation. Sadly, we also see chefs following the casual theme song. Yoga pants and holey jeans replace professional chef attire, leaving one wondering when we will see nurses and firefighters working in their play clothes.
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Many of the experts I talked to mentioned the shift in not only where and what we prefer to eat, but how we prefer to dine. The meal becoming more of a group activity is being seen more and more at the high-quality restaurants. As Chef Tim McKee says, “How do I like to eat personally? La Belle Vie was one expression of that. At Chino Latino, I like to try a lot of little things. I like to have a lot of different tastes. A communal dining experience — look at what we did at Solera. I don’t need a 21-ounce steak. Instead, my preference would be to take six people to go to Libertine and pass plates. It’s like the question: what do you have in your refrigerator? I always get asked that, and I always give a different answer.”
Randy Stanley of 6Smith concurs: “The coolest trend that I love in dining out right now is seeing a group of people order a bunch of appetizers, share a couple of entrées, a few cocktails in the middle of the table and then finish it off with three to four desserts. It creates an instant party and a bond with all of the people you are dining and sharing the experience with. Maybe that is the new standard for family dinner?”
And Michelle Jenson at Café & Bar Lurcat chimes in that such a group dining experience is “a trend that our staff enjoys because it gives us an opportunity to encourage guests to try new things. We all agree that this style of service and ordering is what we restaurant enthusiasts enjoy when we get to dine out.”
As someone who’s not a food professional, I want to ask the experts what to eat. I prefer to skip places where I order at a countertop and get a number for my table, unless it’s a casual, low-context meal. What I want is to learn from the server, glean from them what’s to be known about the menu. I’m the one saying, “Okay, between these two completely different entrées, which one would you pick?” And I’m always happy. Order what I order and we’ll both be gloating about it later. So, I asked the professionals about their menus and they answered.
Eric Dayton, The Bachelor Farmer
We don’t do set tasting menus at The Bachelor Farmer, but I often create my own by starting with an appetizer, then having a toast course, and then an entrée. Or you can just come in and have a single dish and a beer, and I think people appreciate that flexibility. In terms of specific dishes, our menu changes so frequently with the seasonal availability of ingredients that if I recommend something now, by the time this story goes to print, it’ll probably be gone and our chefs will be on to something new.
Michelle Jensen, Café & Bar Lurcat
Chef Adam King and his talented team rolled out the new fall menu on October 15, which has a number of highlights. Starters: duck and foie gras wonton soup; braised Nueske’s bacon with hoisin brandy and compressed Asian pear; apple, cheese, and chive salad (of course). Entrée: adobo-marinated Berkshire pork tenderloin with apple, hazelnut and cheddar bread pudding; rabbit with Riesling and roasted winter vegetables over house-made egg noodles; Chilean sea bass marinated in miso. Vegetables: caramelized Brussels sprouts; roasted cauliflower. Desserts: dark chocolate profiteroles with salted caramel ice cream and spiced pecans; hard cider caramel cheesecake with apple walnut crumble.
Josh Duffy, Campiello
A well-rounded fine dining-style meal at Campiello would come in three to four courses. First, it would include an order of calamari and/or bruschetta to share for the table. I would then recommend our house salad that has been a staple at Campiello for years, though you really can’t go wrong with any of the salad options. I would then recommend the balsamic-glazed short ribs with spaghetti or the pork porterhouse chop with fruit mostarda for the entrée course, with at least one side item to share (I recommend the Brussels sprouts). To finish, I feel like the best dessert on our list is the butterscotch budino.
Ryan Cook, Sea Change
At Sea Change you’ll find seafood that you won’t find anywhere else. I’d recommend starting with oysters from the raw bar and move on to the abalone. I’d pair it with something sparkling.
Caroline Glawe, Wise Acre Eatery
Every dish on our menu is well thought out by Chef Beth Fisher. Each element made from scratch in a kitchen void of corn syrup (nothing from Sysco!) and filled with the highest quality ingredients. Whether you come in for a bowl of chili at noon or a multi-course dinner on a Saturday night, you’ll get a meal made by cooks who care that they are using ingredients from our farm, a farm farmed beyond organic, which is pretty fine.
Olivier Vrambout, L’Etoile du Nord
At L’Etoile du Nord our menu can change two to three times a week based on what ingredients are coming into season at the local farms. Currently on our menu, I would consider the rabbit terrine with dried cherries and stoemp potato croquette a great fall dish to be enjoying right now.
Will Selin, Masu Sushi & Robata
Sit at the sushi bar and order the omaka se from Chef Asan Yamamoto. Omaka se is our chef’s choice sushi assortment, and Asan is easily one of the best, if not the best, sushi chef in town. You can see your meal being prepared, and you get a real appreciation for the thought, creativity, and passion that go into your food. It’s both great food and great entertainment.
Randy Stanley, 6Smith
Most of the dishes at 6Smith have a degree of difficulty in execution which raises them above the norm. Most guests can’t tell you why something is better than down the street, but it is noticeably better. You can pretty much order anything and both see and taste the difference.
The drink scene has its darlings and, while it’s been focused on craft beer and microbreweries in the past and is recently doting on new local distilleries and cocktail rooms, wine has been a constant. Perhaps people are returning to the multiple layers of alcohol that seemed to accompany the fine dining of yore, dipping into a number of the categories of drink.
My grandfather was big on taking us to the golf club and moved from afternoon beer on the golf course to pre-dinner martinis, to dinner martinis, to an after-dinner grasshopper, to end with a brandy and bénédictine to round out the evening… and I loved catching a taste of every float of that drink parade. It was ritual and rite all rolled into one that seemed to occur whether we were at the golf club in Litchfield, Eddie Webster’s in Bloomington, Manhattan Beach by Crosslake, The Safari South in Spicer, or even the Mai Thai in Excelsior (okay, the Mai Thai also usually included a flaming volcano drink with long straws). If more had been available to him, he would have likely still stayed the course on the usuals. But, today, the entrepreneurial spirit of invention and imagination that has been applied to beer, wine, and spirits means that our tastes can be staid or trend toward flights of fancy as we please. So what pleases the professionals?
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Too Much to Say About Wine
Olivier Vrambout, owner and chef of L’Etoile du Nord
There is too much to say about wine in general, and it’s a matter of preference. I prefer to drink — and serve — wines that are biodynamic, organic, and sustainable or made in small batches, and tell a story.
Some old grapes are starting to come back. I am a big fan of Burgundy and pinot as well as others, such as chenin blanc. I think wines from New Zealand, South Africa, and Croatia are slowly carving a small market on the wine shelves.
If I had to say, my favorite red wine right now would be Ken Wright Cellars pinot noir out of Oregon. It’s a beautiful, well-balanced wine. It’s an ideal fall wine, perfect for the cooler evening temperatures, and it doesn’t overpower just about any dish. A great, really fun white wine that I just discovered is from Fausse Piste winery. It’s a blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc, and sauvignon blanc out of southern Oregon. Fun, fun, white wine. Another is Chateau d’Orignac Pineau des Charentes. It’s a French apéritif made from a blend of cognac and red grapes aged in oak. It goes especially well with chocolate, pâté, duck, and cheeses. I would have to say that would be my absolute favorite.
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It depends on my mood. It depends on what kind of experience I want to portray. It’s pretty complicated. I can’t tell you want kind of wine is my favorite wine. Sometimes I’m really interested in Provençal wines. Or cabernet sauvignon. Or Spanish wines. It’s really as much my mood as what would be the perfect pairing. The cocktails? That would be different as well. If I’m interested in pairing, I’d rather pair my food with wines. Sometimes I just want something refreshing to pair with what I’m eating. And sometimes I just want a cocktail. We have an explosion of amazing bartenders doing amazing things and I want to take that in. While I love a lot of them, it’s rare for me to say that “this is my drink and I’m going to have it every time I come in here.” And there’s always Grain Belt.
Eric Dayton, The Bachelor Farmer
I’ve really been enjoying chardonnay from the Jura region of France recently; it has a flavor that almost resembles sherry. As the temperature outside cools, I start to prefer richer white wines along with red wine. And then down in Marvel Bar, this is old-fashioned weather in my book.
Michelle Jensen, Café & Bar Lurcat
We have rolled out the new cocktail and wine list as well. We are so excited to feature so many wines that you can’t find just anywhere. Our bar managers are so proud of the new additions. Featured white glass pour: falanghina, Alois, Caulino, Italy 2014. Featured red glass pour: blaufränkisch, Hopler, Austria 2010. We are also excited to offer the super Tuscan, ‘promis’, Tuscany, Italy 2011 by the glass as well as new cocktails.
Josh Duffy, Campiello
Martinis, Manhattans, and bourbon; white wine should be an arneis, while recommended reds are barbaresco, brunello, and super Tuscan.
Ryan Cook, Sea Change
At Sea Change we make barrel-aged cocktails; we currently have an orange Manhattan that I think is pretty cool.
Caroline Glawe, Wise Acre Eatery
My current wine feature is The 7% Solution, a group of renegade California winemakers making wine from grape varietals outside of the same eight grapes that 93 percent of California vineyards are planted in. All are either organic or biodynamic. Skin-fermented whites (orange wines). A fabulous Petulant Natural. And we have great wine cocktails. I love my list right now.
Will Selin, Masu Sushi & Robata
At Masu we offer a sake tasting flight and recently introduced a whiskey flight that gives you the choice of three different imported, artisanal Japanese whiskeys served neat with a glass of ice. They’re two great, entertaining ways to introduce yourself to, or learn more about, these categories. I’m personally a huge bourbon and whiskey fan. I have a private collection of several hundred bourbons at home that I’ve collected over the years. My dad and I have established a father-and-son tradition of going to Kentucky two to three times a year to sample the new whiskeys and bourbons. In addition, later in October, I’m part of a team from Masu that is going to Japan, and we’ll be studying food trends and touring several Japanese whiskey and sake breweries. Specific domestic brands I’d recommend are Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig, Thomas H. Handy, and Evan Williams, which is a nice, approachable option.
Randy Stanley, 6Smith
I am particularly fond of the wines from small producers and families around the world. They are a particular value in most cases, and you can’t beat that handmade quality only found in small production wineries. My favorite wine is any wine in my hand right now.
What can we conclude about fine dining? It’s changing. It may still exist in some semblance of what we remember from the past, some etiquette and pomp and circumstance may remain. And it’s changing. Diners are more engaged and restaurants are more transparent in their operations and sourcing. Fine dining might now be fancy dining which might actually be high-quality dining which might truly be the restaurant on the corner whose chef we run into at the grocery store. Get out there and stay educated and engaged. Explore and learn. Wine and dine.
The Bachelor Farmer
Cafe & Bar Lurcat
L’Etoile du Nord
La Belle Vie
See also Parasole, www.parasole.com
Masu Sushi & Robata
Wise Acre Eatery