To say that the eight-course tasting menu at La Belle Vie is a peak dining experience doesn't really begin to cover it.
"If I thought I could get away with it, I would have a tasting-menu-only restaurant," said chef/co-owner Tim McKee. "It's our place to really show off, and it's always my favorite part of the menu. It's unlikely that you'll find any chef who doesn't feel the same way."
No wonder the extravagance accounts for 60 percent of the dining room's sales. Frankly, I'm surprised it isn't higher. I can't imagine booking a table and not ordering it.
Here's why: McKee, the Twin Cities' first James Beard award-winning chef (an appellation that will undoubtedly follow him to his obituary), is a craftsman at the peak of his considerable powers, and his tasting menu is the ultimate expression of his prodigious culinary gifts.
This supremely confident cooking is technical prowess mediated by intelligence, creativity and curiosity. And McKee is an enviably disciplined self-editor. Lesser chefs stumble on their compulsion to embellish -- the latest trick, the trendiest ingredient -- an urge that frequently trips them up. Not here. Every dish feels fully formed, with nothing missing or overdone.
McKee's skill set also includes some serious managerial talent, because the staff surrounding him is as fine-tuned an ensemble as the Minnesota Orchestra when it's hurtling through Beethoven. Start with chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp, who has been cooking alongside McKee since the mid-1990s, and pastry chef Diane Yang, another singular talent. Managing director and sommelier Bill Summerville also lends his expertise, not only pairing with aplomb but also seeking out wines to inspire his collaborative-minded colleagues.
Variety with a structure
Although the menu changes monthly, it adheres to a loose format, starting with fish and ending with beef. In between there's almost always a dish devoted to poussin (a young chicken), raised specifically for the restaurant by Pat Ebnet of Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn.
Last week's young-chicken course was all about the ultra-tender breast, a burst of intensely chicken-ey flavor that was caramelized to perfection (the rest of the bird, by the way, is funneled into the staff meal, because "they make amazing Buffalo wings," McKee said with a laugh). It was served in a delicate porcini broth alongside a bite-size slice of pork belly, which exuded a seductive smoky scent but didn't taste that way, a marvelous sleight of hand.
The restaurant's Mediterranean emphasis was most evident in its self-assured approach to seafood, particularly a stunning seared sea bass paired with a not-quite-foamed sauce that suggested brandade in flavor but not texture. Picking a favorite dish is akin to asking Angelina Jolie to choose a favorite child, but I could make a convincing case for the hat-shaped cappelletti, dressed with butter, lobster and black winter truffles and laid out on caviar-sized snips of sweet, tender beets, a sigh-inducing combination.
Midwestern modesty is often mocked, but La Belle Vie's carefully gauged attitude toward luxury has a spot-on sense of place. From foie gras to cheeses plucked from south-central France, premium ingredients get their due, but subtly. The menu is also so seasonally reflective that it could double as a calendar; right now, various peak-season citrus fruits, including blood orange and yuzu, nudge their acidic flavor profiles into several courses.
Tradition with a twist
McKee, wisely catering to all segments of his audience, makes room for the familiar, too. I don't know that I've ever tasted a more supple, flavorful rib-eye, its generously salted char a sublime foil to its ruby interior. Each fork-tender slice was topped, steakhouse style, with a world-class Roquefort, and served opposite a kind of braised beef cheek terrine, a clever demonstration on how different flavors can be eked out of the same animal.
Yang's nuanced desserts ably reflect her boss' mind-set, whether it's a sunny excursion through pineapple or a sculptural nod to caramel and orange. Oh, and the service staff could profitably moonlight in community education, headlining a course dubbed "This Is How It's Done 101." One tiny syntax complaint: While the odious "Are you still working on that?" was never uttered, we did get the dreaded "You guys," despite my dinner companion's female gender.
Befitting the Gold Card prices, McKee and his crew shower the evening with showy, painstakingly produced extras, including a mouth-melting Gruyère gourgère that is surely eliciting a heaven-sent smile from Julia Child, and a tray of parting-shot sweets -- as much a visual feast as it is a flavorful one -- that lessens the check's sting.
Oh, and the $85 price tag? When disposing of disposable income, it's all relative. Tickets to the recent run of "The Lion King" at the Orpheum Theatre ran to $139, a Metrodome seat for a 2011 Vikings game went as high as $128 and the cardiac-arrest-inducing double porterhouse at Manny's Steakhouse is $99.95. By comparison, being immersed in the singular experience of La Belle Vie's $85 eight-course tasting menu could be considered positively Groupon-esque. The kitchen also offers two less expensive options: a five-course version for $70, and four courses, served in the adjacent lounge, for $45.
The dining room, a well preserved throwback to the building's 1927 roots, strikes me as a little off. Sure, it exudes a sense of occasion, but then again, it should, seeing as how it inhabits the nexus of history, gentility and wealth known as the 510 Groveland apartment building. But there's a disconnect between the kitchen's thrill-a-minute workmanship and the less-than-energetic atmosphere.
Maybe it's the monochromatic, too-dim lighting. Or the notable lack of fresh flowers, or any vibrant color, for that matter. It's the dining-out equivalent of the Oscar telecast: a big deal, yet dully predictable.
Fortunately, the similarly scaled and vastly more comfortable lounge is everything the dining room could and probably should be. Its offhand blend of patrician-meets-Pottery Barn makes for what is easily one of the state's most appealing dining-and-drinking environments. It doesn't hurt that it's also the native habitat of the state's master of modern mixology, bartender Johnny Michaels. The playful and not-expensive bar-snacks fare (don't miss the tuna tartare crostini, the lamb burgers or the decadent ham-truffle crêpe) is equally impressive.
In 2005, McKee & Co. relocated the restaurant from its original Stillwater home into one of Minneapolis' prime addresses. It was a brilliant move. Now, seven years later, when civic boosters rattle off the institutions that drive the city's high livability ratings -- the Chain of Lakes, Target Field, the Guthrie Theater -- it seems to me that La Belle Vie has more than earned the right to join their ranks.