David Fhima arrived in the United States 36 years ago with a hundred dollars in his pocket, “an accent that was really heavy and bad,” he said with a laugh, and a small glass jar filled with a live starter from his mother’s kitchen.
“My mother’s mother dough,” he said. “I was freaking out on the plane that it was going to die. The guy from immigration looks at it and he said, ‘What is this?’ I told him, ‘You make bread with it,’ and he looked at it again and said, ‘That’s the best story I’ve ever heard.’”
Fhima calls that mother dough – a fermentation agent that he estimates has been producing breads in his family for more than a century – as “one of the best-kept secrets about our baking.”
Those breads will be an integral part of the program when his Fhima’s Minneapolis opens on Sept. 28, taking over the fabled former Forum Cafeteria (pictured, below) in the City Center complex in downtown Minneapolis.
The glorious mint green-and-mirrors interior dates to 1930 and is widely considered to be one of the country’s best examples of the Art Deco movement.
“I walk in here every day and I’m in awe, I’m humbled,” said Fhima. “When you say ‘Minneapolis,’ this space is what should come to mind.”
The reason why most people don’t make that link is because the Forum has a dodgy leasing history: since upscale Goodfellow’s closed in 2005 after its nine-year run, the room has been dark, with the exception of two short-lived enterprises: the Forum (2010-2011) and Il Foro (2015-2016). (Learn more about the Forum's past here). That’s a track record that could be politely described as “off-putting” to potential restaurateurs. But not Fhima.
“I think it needed those failures for the landlord to give us a better business deal,” said Fhima. “Trust me, I’m an expert at paying rent through the roof. At Louis XIII (Fhima’s glamorous, long-ago project at Southdale), I was paying $40,000 a month. What was I thinking? Here, we have twice the space, at a fraction of that cost. This is a phenomenal address. Just look next door. Fogo de Chao is one of the state's top-grossing restaurants.”
The Forum certainly boasts a phenomenal interior, unlike any other in the Twin Cities. Preservation covenants dictate that the two-story room’s walls, ceilings and intricate chandeliers can’t be touched. Fhima is making tweaks elsewhere, however.
A new oval-shaped bar -- lined in translucent, backlit Lucite and topped in a milky quartz – is taking a prominent position up front. Booths that once awkwardly lined the dining room’s center have been pushed to the room’s outer edges (and can be covered, “kissing booth”-style, in sheer, silvery drapes), reserving that prime real estate for tables. The black-and-white tile floors (and, presumably, the acoustics) will be softened by green and orange Pakistani rugs.
The restaurant’s three private dining rooms have been revamped, and a sidewalk cafe on 7th Street, complete with fire pits, elaborate plantings and overhead lights, is being designed to hopefully introduce a little of the interior’s built-in glamour to a decidedly unglamorous streetscape.
“The idea is to preserve the space, but give it a modern feel,” said Fhima. “It’s stunning, but it doesn’t feel old, even though it’s almost 90 years old. We want you to sit down and feel like you’re in a theater, because there’s no better theater than this space.”
Fhima has hired Patrick Atanalian, the French chef who spent the past decade at Sanctuary in Minneapolis (because the Art Deco style has its roots in Paris, it seems fitting that a pair of French chefs are taking over the Forum). Jaclyn Von (a St. Genevieve vet) will be heading up the pastry kitchen, and Sean Jones (Parlour, Bittercube) is managing the beverage program.
(Locally, Fhima’s resume reaches back to the early 1990s: Mpls. Cafe; first in Uptown and later downtown at 11th and Hennepin; Chloe, in Uptown; Fhima’s, in downtown St. Paul; Louis XIII; and LoTo, in Lowertown, followed by its replacement, Faces Mears Park, which closed late last year. For the past several years he’s been immersed in the food operations at Target Center. The French chef was born in Morocco to a French-Spanish mother and an Italian father, a family tree that informs his Mediterranean cooking).
Fhima believes that this collaborative environment will make Fhima’s Minneapolis stand out from his previous enterprises, where he tried to be a one-man show.
“The old David was doing too many things,” he said with a laugh. “The reason that we’re going to do well is because of people like Patrick, and Jaclyn, and Sean. I’m really happy to be surrounding myself with all of this talent.”
Expect dishes that capture and occasionally merge the essence of both chefs’ experiences and backgrounds: halibut poached in almond milk, a braised lamb shank tagine, gnocchi with a rabbit stew, an anchovies-free pissaladiere, bone marrow with a chermoula finish.
“Classics with a modern twist,” said Atanalian.
The plan is to open on Sept. 28, serving dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch will follow, sometime around Thanksgiving.