This past Friday, I went to the opening night of a new Minneapolis restaurant with my old friend Sarah Moeller.
Sarah is a chef’s best friend. When she’s not conquering the business world, she works alongside the city’s finest chefs, for no pay, just to shell beans in their kitchen and be a part of the crew. When she’s not doing that, Sarah’s throwing down big money in the dining room, spending hundreds on exquisite meals, she's a true supporter of chef-focused food. We met up in the lounge area and she introduced me to the bar staff.
I was blown away with their wine knowledge and friendliness. I noticed tinctures and house made purees sitting next to the not so usual bar mixes, some real love was being paid to the cocktail menu. We ordered the five-course tasting menu for $65 each, quite reasonable considering the ingredients: soft shelf crab, skate, lamb, all done justice by the chef.
I'll admit we also gossiped a little ( What do you think about such and such restaurant, blah blah blah ). I consider it minor shoptalk between two people floating in the same circles, but is this a good thing or bad? I can’t say, but I suppose it’s only human. I have been on the receiving end of some pretty vicious gossip; I was honored with a great review by Dara only to read a letter to the editor, in the very next issue, which stated that I must have performed fellatio on Dara to get such a nice review. I remember reading it and feeling humiliated. But then my mother-in-law read it, and if there is a rung below humiliated, that’s where I was left to hang.
Sarah and I dished between courses, with the food runner serving each plate with encyclopedic knowledge of its construction. We spoke with the general manger about ramps, morels, and crab (you’d be hard pressed to find a sweeter season for food). This new restaurant was not like the old one I had been to before. The opening night of this new place, called La Belle Vie, was on June 4, when we all read about Josh Thoma, one of the partners, being accused of some very, very bad things, including being responsible for putting umpteen peoples' livelihoods in jeopardy.
Within the collective consciousness this saga will breed via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, papers, and magazines, this elegant restaurant will be savaged and split open wide for all to dissect. Including me. And who am I? Maybe a big nobody, not a restaurant rainmaker but a suburban housewife and mom with a little cooking gig on the side. However, I do have some primary knowledge, as this was my craft and trade. Do my words merit more than a guy on Yelp or a traditional journalist? That’s up for debate, but restaurant reporting is changing and today the Minneapolis food scene is changing too.
Did it not tear at your heart to read Amy McKee defend her husband? To read how Isaac was bilked out of hard earned cash? To be completely weirded out imagining Thoma in hand cuffs? Chicago, New York, sure, but Minnesota, where I can still pay for gas with a personal check? What the hell is going on?
The true meat of the story is this: Chef Mike Decamp and crew can seriously put up great food. Their only motive is to make you wanna weep, the food is so good. I hope they dig their heels in and keep putting up brilliant menus and tweet the hell out of it. Apologies and platitudes from the higher-ups are trivial. Producing amazing plates, one after another, is the remedy to all the sadness unjustly laid on their shoulders right now. It is also the unflinching devotion that Decamp has for McKee that will charge his spirit in this new restaurant.
Bill Summerville and his front-of-the-house staff care about every little thing that goes on there. Can you imagine how this man juggles the demands and expectations of the guests, service staff, and the kitchen? There are a small few that adore serving people, and he makes it look all too effortless. Not to mention, he's got the goods, check out his score of Thomas Houseman selection of wines. No one else in the state got them, but he has 25 cases of the mere 250 produced! He’s also putting together a Rose wine list that will set the bar on great pink wines in the cities. Amazing.
It may be an investment collective's business, but they do not ‘own’ the restaurant. We all know that this restaurant is McKee and Summerville’s heart, and it is my true belief that they are to be trusted as they have never levied their success at the expense of patrons or employees. You don’t see them screaming ‘FRANCHISE this sucker and were out!’ If future performance is predicated on past behavior, they will endure this.
Best case scenario, La Belle Vie is a new restaurant, with a little storied past that has yet to play out in full, which will only enhance its charm and deepen its character. Worse case, I don’t want to even think about.