If the moral, ethical and legal land mines surrounding human cloning weren’t so explosive, I’d propose replicating chef Steven Brown.Think about it: More Steven Browns would mean more Steven Brown restaurants. We’re currently blessed with two, and they only make me hungry for more. From the moment it opened in 2011, his Tilia catapulted to the upper reaches of the local dining stratosphere, and it’s stayed there.
And now we have St. Genevieve. Glorious St. Genevieve.
Leave it to Brown to undersell and overdeliver. When he began talking about the restaurant last year — it has replaced the former home of the Lynn on Bryant — he was couching it in terms of a modest, Parisian-style tavern, or buvette.
Dynamic and ambitious, St. Genevieve honors French traditions while placing them in an approachable American context, all the while filtering them through Brown’s liberating approach to cooking. That’s a lot to take in, but trust me, the alchemy works.
Orientation at St. Genevieve should begin at the bar, and its happy emphasis on bubbles, sourced by general manager Brie Roland from the deep well of small-scale French producers.
“How many people have you heard say, ‘I hate Champagne’?” asked Brown. “You never hear that it sucks. Cava, maybe, or prosecco. But never Champagne. We want to show people that it’s something to have every day. Besides, it’s such a great food wine. It goes well with anything fried.”
Indeed it does, a theorem easily proved by ordering the French fries. The St. Genevieve versions are profoundly crispy, yet the insides somehow manage to maintain an airy potato-like fluffiness. The secret? They’re blanched in water before being fried, twice. Bring on the Brut!
Or the sensational chicken paillard, its audibly crunchy coating a tantalizing juxtaposition to the juicy, deeply flavorful, all-thigh meat. Executive chef Paul Backer finishes it with North African touches — a lively chermoula, tender baby artichokes — immediately propelling it to my current go-to chicken dinner.
The trout is a revelation. After the fish’s bones are carefully extracted, it’s stuffed with a mousse of scallops, shrimp and cream, then seared on the flattop grill until the skin achieves a dark, uniform crispiness while the flesh remains snowy and succulent. Add capers, lemon and the miracle that is brown butter, and let the sighing begin.
At the heart of the menu is Brown’s notion of tavern fare: a half-dozen open-face sandwiches that could easily veer into precociousness but remain firmly anchored in their rustic beauty and visceral appeal.
They’re built on top-quality Patisserie 46 breads, and if they were the menu’s sole focus, St. Genevieve would be a runaway hit. Order enough to cover the table, ask for a sharp knife, and share. Better yet, stay greedy.
I wanted to scarf every scrap of the tartine-as-ode-to-spring, a thick slice of toasted brioche blanketed in a thick pea purée, each bite dabbled with almond, lemon and sour yogurt notes and topped with sprightly, radiantly fresh pea tendrils. Who needs meat when the vegetarian dishes are such dazzlers?
Thinly sheared, ruby-red rib-eye, the beef melt-in-your-mouth tender, was expertly paired with tangy roasted ramps. Pistachios and tartly pickled berries proved the perfect foil for a duck liver mousse’s deep earthiness.
I’ll never look at lox and cream cheese on a bagel in the same way after devouring St. Genevieve’s version: toasted brioche schmeared with briny sea urchin butter and topped with swirls of silky smoked salmon and wisps of palate-cleansing sorrel. So good.
The summit? Ham, runny-yolked eggs and luscious raclette, decked out on sturdy miche, a formula so quintessentially French that it should be served with an accordion playing in the background. If this is what Parisians consider bar food, then we here in Tater Tot Nation have some catching up to do.
The menu’s second major emphasis is on smaller-scale but still shareable plates. Typically Brownian, they’re a bold and beguiling stand against the same-old, same-old.
A velvety lamb tartare, its gaminess announcing itself in a whisper rather than a shout, is served in a parchment-like wrapper and dressed with that eternally appealing combination of brightly acidic oranges and dark, earthy, oil-cured olives.
Lowly leeks get the royal treatment, turning what’s essentially that ham dinner staple — creamed onions — into a dreamy, truffle-scented must-have.
A scallop, seared to a delectable crispiness on top, but shimmery and juicy beneath, was the ideal foil for a creamy, well-seasoned duck sausage and a refreshing papaya salad.
Many French touchstones have made appearances, including brandade and pig’s head, all dispatched with virtuosity. I’m devastated to report that my flat-out favorite entry has, for seasonal reasons, also left the building. It was a play on panzanella salad, featuring roasted acorn squash and brimming with lively sweet-and-sour accents. Here’s hoping it returns next fall.
In its place, Brown & Co. (the talented kitchen crew also includes chef de cuisine Jason Hansen and sous chef Nathel Anderson) are offering morels. They’re paired with delicate gnocchi and served in a spinach purée (its vibrant color, seemingly plucked from a Fauvist canvas, is another Brown trademark), the kind of dish where eating every last scrap should be legally mandated.
The half-dozen entrée-size plates include the aforementioned trout and chicken. If the others don’t exude the razzle-dazzle of their more modestly portioned counterparts, well, that’s a tough act to follow.
Still, Brown has long had an affinity for duck; does anyone in town approach it with more verve, or prepare it better? I’m thinking not. This time around, he demonstrates its flexibility by approaching it two ways, roasted and confit-style. Wow.
There’s a similar twofer with pork, paired with humble grits, celery and an amusing Funyuns-like onion puff. And salmon with spring vegetables is perfectly fine, but ultimately plays second fiddle to those showstopping smaller plates.
(Well, most of them, anyway; a few dullards from the opening menu are history, and it’s best to ignore the uncharacteristic duds on the current menu, including clunky soft shell crab and chewy charred squid.)
Pastry chef Jaclyn Von’s work mirrors Brown’s singular aesthetic, and she has a sure-handed way of keeping sugar shock at bay. A swoon-worthy date cake has unfortunately hit its sell-by date, but Von is making agile forays into rhubarb, orange and a butterscotch-chocolate combo, so it feels petty to complain.
As for weekend brunch, it’s a standard-setter. While Von flexes her a.m. know-how with flaky pain au chocolat, crumbly scones and demure, piping-hot beignets, Backer conjures up a half-dozen gotta-have dishes that range from a souped-up French toast to a restrained shrimp-and-grits combination. Beautiful omelets, too.
The room’s transportive design, by Heather Keena of Machine Scenic in Minneapolis, in collaboration with Brown and his spouse, Stacey Kvenvold, vividly evokes the look of a big-budget Broadway revival of a Noël Coward play — “Design for Living,” maybe — that’s set in Paris.
No take-me-to-the-Left-Bank detail appears to be have been overlooked, starting with the understated color palette. Not since Robin Wright’s wardrobe in “House of Cards” have shades of pearl, cream, ivory, putty and eggshell been utilized to such captivating effect.
Well, there is one misstep. When St. Genevieve is full — which is often, since it’s a Steven Brown restaurant — the room tends to run loud. Ear-ringing loud. Conversation-crushing loud. ZZ Top concert-loud. So painfully loud that perhaps OSHA should consider intervening to prevent staffers’ hearing loss.
When it’s not full? Not bad. The din is most pronounced at night, when the bar is busy. Is there something about alcohol that fuels ever-escalating voices?
Consider yourself warned. Now, go.