Eat The Menu: Open House

Tomato and onion pipérade with seared tuna.
Tomato and onion pipérade with seared tuna. Photos by Mike Hnida

Restaurateur David Fhima has been opening restaurants in the Twin Cities for almost as long as I’ve been writing about them. Yet the geography around which his cooking has focused always remains constant: the traditional dishes of Mediterranean kitchens, from Spain to Morocco and more. So it’s no big leap to welcome Maison Margaux, which salutes the classic brasserie fare of France.

To quote that country’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, “Le jour de gloire est arrive”—which translates as, “Glory, halleluia….and it’s about time!”

The fortuitous choice of location was a no-brainer: the foodie-centric North Loop of Minneapolis—specifically, the historic building of 1884 that most recently housed Ribnick Furs. Gone are the vaults that held precious pelts of mink and sable, replaced by walk-ins harboring halibut and racks of lamb.

Two street-level rooms and a brilliant bar set the scene in a vague tribute to the days and ways of a fabled Parisian nightclub. One is dressed in bright, bright (dare we say Cote d’Azure?) blue, from “marble” tabletops and comfy upholstered chairs to the servers’ shiny vests and ties, which almost require sunglasses to admire. A second room stars chairs upholstered in tones of café au lait against blond brick walls. Sunny, upbeat and inviting: That’s the message. Toiling in the open kitchen, you’ll spot Chef David himself, coiffed in bandana headgear. His son, Eli, attired more nattily, patrols the dining rooms with panache. And let me add right here that there’s no Muzak, so conversation with your companion is actually a possibility.

The menu is divided neatly down the middle—apps on one side ($9-29) and mains ($26-65) on the other. As promised, they don’t reinvent the culinary wheel; they salute the classics. Among the starters, for instance: onion soup, salade Nicoise, scallops St. Jacques, moules frites, and frog legs Provencale. But, before you attempt to finalize your choice, a basket of soft bread rolls arrives, gratis—a welcome gesture that’s almost obsolete these days.

From the list of apps, sized for sharing, we chose a tomato and onion piperade abetted with seared tuna. Arriving on a wooden board, its sourdough bread base supported a lovely, sweet tangle of marinated tomatoes, onions and red peppers, spliced with generous squares of ruddy, just-barely-warm tuna mere seconds away from raw, and satin-smooth. Simple and successful.

As a second starter, my eyes went right to a combo I’d never seen before—a souffle composed of pureed cauliflower melded with gruyere and chevre cheeses. It’s sturdier than most souffles because it’s been concocted in advance and waiting to be reheated, which means it’s on your table ASAP, sans tedious oven time. The vegetable’s prominent flavor is balanced by the equally-pungent scents of the chosen cheeses. Off to a tasty start!

Chocolate soufflé

Next time: the bacon and brie. The pancake-like clafouti. And the frog legs. (I grew up eating them as a kid in local supper clubs—long gone, both the clubs and that menu item.) I could, and will, make an entire meal out of the kitchen’s classic, and classy, appetizers.

But for now, on to the mains.  You can’t come up with more traditional brasserie fare than short ribs Bourguignon. The meaty, melty beef cuts proved tender and full-flavored, helped out by sweet onions and carrots joined by a meaty mushroom, along with a close-to-raw potato. They’re all dabbled in a wine-rich gravy, which also laps lasciviously onto the banks of mashed potatoes. Nothing lacking here!

We next chose the roast chicken, primarily because it comes paired with ratatouille, one of my all-time faves. The petite bird delivered juicy flesh under its crispy skin, while the winning combo of tomatoes, onions, squash, and eggplant made sweet companions, abetted by a mushroom velouté (nice addition) and an occasional welcome burst of peppercorns’ pizazz.        

I’ll be back for the halibut; the bouillabaisse; the bone marrow and duck confit combo that looked appealing on an adjoining table. And, of course, dessert. Because, for once in my life, I didn’t save room. The list ($10-14) ranges from a chocolate souffle (which I’ll choose) to pear tart; from coconut pie to crème brulee. The café’s French-focused wine list includes 35 BTG choices.

A below-street speakeasy and an open-air patio will open later in summer, further livening the North Loop.

Maison Margaux
224 North 1st St.
(612) 900-1800

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