Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Bottles of Champagne at St. Genevieve in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Nab a seat at the bar at St. Genevieve and order sweet treats and glasses of bubbly.
As our finest fine dining restaurants have shuttered one by one—R.I.P., La Belle Vie, Vincent, and Brasserie Zentral—Minneapolis has seen a sea change in great food: Now there’s nowhere left to eat where salad forks might vex us, so we all must chillax. As with so many things, the French have been there and done that. Starting in the 1990s, many top French chefs began to wonder if their native restaurants had gotten too stuffy, too locked into the standards championed by the Michelin dining guide. These chefs decided they wanted to make the quality of food you might find in a top Michelin-rated restaurant but at more everyday prices, in more everyday spots.
Rivals immediately coined this style of cooking “bistronomy” and meant it as an insult aimed at chefs who fancied themselves as creators of gastronomy when they were really mere bistro-nobodies. You’d think French critics and rivals would know better than to come up with a catchy name for your enemies. The Impressionists got their tag from being ridiculed as creating mere impressions, the Fauvists got theirs from being initially mocked as “wild beasts,” and Rimbaud and other poets gleefully appropriated “Decadents.” Needless to say, like the British gastropubs before them, bistronomy became a thing. So what does it have to do with Minneapolis? Behold St. Genevieve, the new Steven Brown restaurant a few blocks south of Lake Harriet. It’s so French that you feel like you stepped through a portal to Paris, so relaxed that one of their specialties is a ham sandwich.
Not any ham sandwich, mind you, a ham sandwich of importance! It’s a Croque Madame for which thick slices of good bread are sopped with a rich béchamel, piled high with local Red Table ham shaved so thinly you can see through it if you hold it up to the light, gilded with a broiled quilt of raclette cheese, and finally crowned with a sunny-side-up egg so perfectly cooked it looks ready for its close-up. In a city that has always had better ham than ham sandwiches, this one is a reason for celebration. It’s got the magic that great bar food always does, teeter-tottering on the edge of catastrophe between too salty and too rich but staying in the sweet spot, pairing as well with a beer as it does a bubbly glass of chenin blanc.
Speaking of which, St. Genevieve has one of the most appealing white wine lists in the Cities today. Put together by Brie Roland, it’s full of small-producer Champagne, assorted other bubblies from farmers around France, and characterful whites from around the world. The red wine list, only six bottles, is food-friendly and interesting enough. I particularly like that the restaurant offers half-glass pours, the better to hopscotch around and try it all. I was surprised on early visits that the beer list wasn’t stronger (weren’t pre-opening reports all about French beer?). Brown tells me direct French imports will come later this year.
Brown’s food, meanwhile, is familiar to anyone who’s lived and eaten in Minneapolis for the last few decades. He cooked at icons like the long lost Loring Bar and Restaurant, helmed the Local through its brief Irish fine dining phase, dazzled with every haute trick in the book at Levain, and blazed through a number of other spots before founding his forever home at Tilia, which to this critic’s mind has been one of the best restaurants in the Cities for several years, and somehow gets incrementally better all the time. (While Brown is in charge of both, Paul Backer is executive chef at St. G., and Tilia’s chef de cuisine is now Kyual Cribben, former executive chef of Minneapolis’s other most consistently excellent chef-driven restaurant 112 Eatery.)
The menu at St. Genevieve is divided into plates small and large, and I found all the large ones achingly dull: a duck breast that required sawing to get through; lamb roulade that tasted like very well-cooked and nutritious food someone in scrubs would tell you to eat to stay strong. To those who argue that you should never order the entrées anyway: harrumph. If something’s on the menu it ought to have a reason to be there. The small plates, for their part, are further divided into two chunks: small plates and open-faced sandwiches called tartines. The tartines have great flavors, but those without sauce, like the beautiful smoked salmon with uni butter, are nearly impossible to eat: The bread is crusty and well toasted, but if you pick it up to bite it, the whole thing shatters (and I hope you’re not wearing silk). I ended up ordering the salmon again and again, and eating the lush smoky stuff off the top as if the bread was a plate, which was fine but wasn’t right.
The straight-up small plates are nothing but exquisite. The potato pave is a witty and deftly executed wink at poutine, whereby thinly sliced potatoes are cooked in such a way that they turn into buttery, multi-layered sticks the size of packs of gum, and then plated atop Minneapolis’s own Lone Grazer cheese curds and a very fine sauce, espagnole. It tastes like poutine and looks like something straight out of a Michelin-starred restaurant. I can hardly think of a smarter, better little plate in town, though the tête de cochon gives it a good run: little roulades of rich pork, whisper-thin crisp bits, and a piquant anchor of pickled cabbage and fig moutarde (Brown also gets his pig faces from Red Table—more evidence of Minneapolis slowly returning to collaborative farm culture).
The bouillabaisse is St. Genevieve’s most “bistronomy” dish, a deconstructed bowl of a light fennel broth served with roast tomato and a trio of perfectly cooked, big, fat, prestige shrimp, their delicate bodies palely aquiver and beady heads fried crisp as potato chips. The braised leeks are the foie gras of onions, melting and sensuous. The simple salad of lettuce with pickled onions, thinly sliced radishes, and a perfectly poached egg is the embodiment of the notion that everything in Paris is better than everything here. It’s a really good salad.
Desserts, by Jackie Von, are just what you want in a bit of contemporary Paris near the lake. The chilled lemon soufflé is a charming little arrangement of the many faces of sour: the delicate cream of lemon soufflé, the dark deepness of blood orange sorbet, the acidic bite of a cranberry coulis, the freshness of au vif citrus segments, and a coconut tuile working as a palate cleanser between bites. The Vietnamese coffee panna cotta is easy to love, though I was less sure about the brown sugar date cake with curried caramel, itself delicious, but then baffled with candied carrots. If you’re going to bring carrots to a dessert, they must be undeniable. Still, Von is without question one of the folks in the new generation of pastry chefs whom I’m most excited about.
Despite the excellence of the various bits of pigs’ ear, salad, Champagne, and curried caramel, the thing that makes the most forceful impression at St. Genevieve is not the food but the feeling. The bright, shiny white bar looks like something out of a significant arrondissement, but it was actually sketched on a napkin by Brown who found two auto-body guys to spray-lacquer the art deco curves to life. The bar top is zinc and inset with long troughs that always hold ice and an array of sparkling wines. Sit down and it feels like you’ve just gotten to a party. Also aiding in the atmosphere: the little marble tables, the art deco wallpaper, and the wall of narrow window-doors to the street (in the summer the whole thing will open to let in the air and sun). Everything about the space, masterfully designed by Heather Keena, who also did Tilia, says, “Welcome to Paris.”
It’s not surprising that a feeling is the central thing at this Minnesota outpost of bistronomy, for there’s an associated movement to bistronomy called “Le Fooding” (a portmanteau of “food” and “feeling”). It’s a French term referring to a philosophy and movement to imbue French food with American energy and innovation while keeping it French. Le Fooding, bistronomy—how many schools and critical philosophies are there these days about French food? Enough to inspire a most excellent south Minneapolis Champagne bar. And a damn good ham sandwich. 5003 Bryant Ave. S., Mpls., 612-353-4843