If I were granted a single wish — and the whole world-peace thing was already taken — I might ask that chef Gavin Kaysen keep opening restaurants.
From the day it debuted in November 2014, his North Loop Spoon and Stable shifted the Twin Cities’ dining-out paradigm. Kaysen’s sophomore effort, Bellecour, promises more of the same.
Inspired by his mentors, French chefs Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse, and named for the central square of Lyon, France’s gastronomic epicenter, Bellecour is the rare Twin Cities restaurant that knows exactly what it is — in this case, a straight-up, modern French bistro — and then goes about the business of doing what it does very, very well.
As a restaurateur, Kaysen skimps on nothing, which makes dining at his restaurants (how nice to invoke the plural version of that word) such a highly polished pleasure. And as a chef, he heralds his intentions for Bellecour with a pair of astonishingly impressive dishes.
You think you know bouillabaisse? Not until you’ve immersed your taste buds in the Bellecour version, its saffron-fueled lobster-shellfish broth as complex — and as dizzyingly gratifying — as a Bach oratorio. (It helps that the kitchen roars through vast quantities of lobster and shrimp for its shellfish platters, exercises in excess that never fail to elicit oohs and aahs as they pass through the dining room.)
A similar revelation is the duck à l’orange, with Minnesota-raised birds prepared two ways: a confit leg, the dense, intensely flavorful meat falling off the bone at the fork’s slightest pressure, and slices of breast, seared low and slow in a cast-iron pan until the fat-capped skin attains a tantalizing crackle but the meat remains indecently juicy. The duck’s inherent richness is cut two ways, with a pert orange gastrique, and paper-thin sweet-and-sour pickled turnips, a leitmotif that continues through a sublime, gently sweet turnip gratin.
The kitchen could stop there and still engender a slavish following, but thankfully it doesn’t, with Kaysen and chef de cuisine Nick Dugan demonstrating an easy fluency in the bistro vocabulary.
Their approach to steak frites is anything but dutiful. The beef is a price-conscious rib-eye, the velvety, ruby-red meat brushed with an anchovy-enriched butter as it leaves the grill. The fries, wonderfully crisp, are a few smidgens larger than matchsticks and are embellished with wisps of fried leeks.
The classic boudin blanc gets its due, and then some, the creamy rabbit sausage amply fortified with pork fat and redolent of nutmeg and clove. The kitchen’s rotisserie stays busy with chicken and pork (both marvelous) and, curiously, cauliflower that’s treated with Indian accents. It’s a beast of a dish, one better served as a shared side than a single-serving entree. The bone-in short rib is another colossus that should satisfy — and impress — the heartiest of appetites.
Yes, so many Gallic classics are present, accounted for and impeccable: snails swimming in a garlicky butter, mellow roasted bone marrow, tender mussels in a broth suffused with just-right pastis notes.
The splendid brunch mixes holdovers from dinner (a textbook steak tartare, smoked salmon so beautiful it’s almost a shame to eat, elegant deviled eggs) with dishes that beg to be ordered, and inhaled, whether it’s the quiche Lorraine to end all quiche Lorraines, or a croque madame that’ll make you wonder why you don’t eat ham-and-egg sandwiches more often. Naturally, something as basic as an herbs-filled omelet is elevated to work-of-art status.
Another team player
Bellecour’s secret weapon just might be pastry chef Diane Yang.
In Wayzata, her desserts — disciplined renditions of sterling classics — are the antithesis of the dazzling, free-form think pieces that are her Spoon and Stable bread and butter.
A crème brûlée — its custard indecently voluptuous, its burned sugar top as fragile as stained glass — is as scrupulously correct as her utterly divine rendition of Opera cake. She plays to the Instagram set by gathering a delicate crêpe into a purse, wrapping it around chilled peach-infused goodness and serving it in a pool of delicate pink consommé that’s perfumed with white nectarines. Hello, summer.
Then there’s the restaurant’s bakery counter. It’s tiny, so much so that if it didn’t occupy such a front-and-center spot it might be considered an afterthought. But with the talented Yang in the lead, this side business is, inevitably, center-stage material.
After utilizing her Spoon and Stable brunch menu as a testing ground, Yang was more than ready for a retail bakery operation. Lucky Wayzata.
Her croissants and Danish, both savory and sweet, are perfection. There’s an impressive cadre of scones and muffins, devilishly spongy madeleines, decadent éclairs and Paris-Brest, plus size (and flavor-packed) macarons and an ethereal cake that’s composed of several dozen delicate crêpes sandwiched with a luscious pastry cream lightened with whipped cream. A handful of skillfully rendered breads are called upon for a few well-composed grab-and-go sandwiches.
It’s not only a low-priced entry into Kaysen’s orbit, but Yang’s handiwork also activates what would otherwise be a daytime dead spot, proving that good bakeries invariably act as neighborhood change agents. Even better, it’s a Wi-Fi-free zone. Rather than seeing people hunched over their smartphones, they’re actually engaging in — gasp — conversation. How civilized.
Telling tales of a culinary past
If only the dinner menu recounted the tales that linger around so many of its dishes, most of them rooted in memories of Kaysen’s singular ambitions and experiences.
The foie gras — supple, decadent and presented in the classic torchon manner — spent much of the summer embellished with a parade of berries (delicate fraises des bois, juice-laden black raspberries) cultivated in the neighborhood by a dedicated customer.
“He’s a doctor who has a fascination with growing berries, and they’re unbelievable,” Kaysen said. “Our garnishes were dictated by the output in his backyard.” The setup reminded Kaysen of his tenure in Switzerland as a young chef, when he would pick berries with his local farmer, “and then make a mille-feuille for dinner,” he said.
Sure, cash can quickly evaporate at Bellecour. But it’s just as easy to enjoy top-flight cooking at moderate prices. I’d make a meal out of two dishes: a stunner of a salad that’s little more than bibb lettuce leaves (each painstakingly brushed with a gossamer vinaigrette and flecked with herbs) that are stacked like flapjacks and garnished with thinly shaved radishes, and a Gruyère-capped crock of onion soup, its intensely concentrated flavor the seeming equivalent of a 20-pound sack of onions. Total investment: $20.
Even better, if it’s before 7 p.m. — that’s when the bakery calls it quits — you could drop $2.50 and walk out with a crackle-topped double-chocolate cookie, each chewy bite heavily bittersweet. It’s the cookie equivalent of the edge of the best pan of brownies imaginable.
Yes, even the baguette — the glorious baguette — has a back story. For the first few weeks, the kitchen’s breadbasket salutation was a brioche roll, based upon one Kaysen fell for during his Swiss tenure. “But it looked too much like a Parker House roll,” he said. “It was too American. People wouldn’t understand that it’s very French to me.”
Which is why he ultimately switched to a baguette, its golden exterior shining with a swipe of herbed garlic butter. It’s an event just to pick it up and pull it apart, the outer edges crackling, the interior soft and chewy. And warm. And utterly irresistible.
Good looks run in the family
If there’s a family resemblance between Spoon and Stable and Bellecour, it’s that they operate on similar — and, for the Twin Cities, semi-rarefied — planes of smooth, seemingly effortless professionalism.
The two restaurants certainly look nothing alike, although both properties were designed by Shea, the Minneapolis design firm that has probably done more than any other to advance the appearance and feel of the region’s dining scene.
Where Spoon and Stable is wide-open and theatrical, Bellecour functions on a more intimate scale, a pair of long, narrow rooms bisected by a skinny, sunlit foyer. On the right sits that diminutive bakery and the convivial bar, with an overflow seating area and a charming patio behind them. The left side is occupied by the dining room, with glimpses into the busy, gleaming kitchen.
With its unadorned white oak paneling, black trim and well-placed mirrors, the conversation-friendly dining room sports the timeless, well-tailored chic of a Chanel suit. As a quintessential bistro, the setting is flexible enough to be what its customers make of it, a tablecloth-free zone that accommodates casual diners, but also can feel formal enough for a celebration.
Bellecour’s gracious hospitality radiates from general manager Jeanie Janas and her all-smiles, denim-clad crew. Is it Chakra treatments? CrossFit? Açai juice? Whatever makes them so happy, I want in.
It’s all so predictable, right? Top chef opens restaurant. Critic fawns. Eyerolls ensue. But French bistros — especially when they’re Bellecour-quality French bistros — are my kind of restaurant. Turns out, Kaysen feels the same way.
“It’s the kind of French restaurant that got me to fall in love with cooking 20 years ago,” he said. “I love cooking this food. I love eating this food.”