Rather than pledging to attend more yoga classes, cut back on Facebook time or some other wholly unrealistic New Year’s resolution goal, I’m funneling my energies into not taking long-running restaurants for granted.
Starting with Vincent.
The 12-year-old restaurant is a vivid reflection of chef Vincent Francoual’s unique background. This native of small-town southwestern France entered vocational school at age 14, then immersed himself in the rigors of the European resort circuit before landing in a pair of four-star Manhattan restaurants in the 1990s: Lespinasse and Le Bernardin.
Francoual was 29 when he found himself in Minnesota in 1997, channeling his considerable skills into reviving the fading Cafe Un Deux Trois.
Four years later he was at the helm of his eponymous establishment, a move that rightly propelled him into the upper echelons of the city’s chef corps and earning the title that he has monogrammed on his immaculate white chef’s coat: “Le Grand Fromage” (“the Big Cheese”).
As for the restaurant that bears his name, how has it held up?
Fine, thank you very much. More than fine, actually. This oasis of professionalism and grace exudes a civilizing force that few local restaurants can claim, yet it never loses its sense of Midwestern approachability.
Picturing 11th and Nicollet without calm, self-assured Vincent — the restaurant and the man — is akin to picturing the skyline minus the Foshay Tower. In other words, unthinkable.
Appreciating the tried and true
One of the restaurant’s greatest strengths is how little it changes, and yet how it sustains an aura of freshness.
The secret may be Francoual’s control-freak nature, which results in a menu of fastidiously rendered and sharply edited classics that never go out of fashion.
Those hungering for the symbols of abstract expressionist cooking — the meticulously constructed crumb anthills, the dusting of powders, the reductions presented as Pollock-like drizzles and blobs — should dine elsewhere.
Instead, there are scallops, their shimmering juiciness further accented by subtle incursions of butter and orange, mildly flavored leeks and cuts of fingerling potatoes.
Like so much of Francoual’s work, it brilliantly embraces a time-tested and utterly satisfying balance of fat and acid, sweet and savory, with subtly contrasting textural, temperature and color elements all at play. No wonder he said that “this dish will go with me into the ground.”
The majority of this refined and disciplined cooking is sheer, unadulterated pleasure.
Other kitchens might consider a butternut squash soup a throwaway item, but at Vincent this silky reminder of the late-autumn harvest is a labor of pure love, finishing each just-barely-touched-by-cream spoonful with creamy blue cheese and sweet-bitter endive accents.
Cassoulet has returned, and few dishes respond to the Alberta Clipper portion of the calendar with greater aplomb. Francoual’s labor-intensive version is a four-day affair and properly utilitizes — what else? — hand-picked French Tarbais white beans, mellowed with ham hock and duck and dressed with a punchy garlic sausage and golden breadcrumbs.
Francoual’s let’s-not-reinvent-the-wheel mind-set frequently yields deeply satisfying results: cool, slightly sweet beef tartare accented by tangy Worcestershire sauce and sharp cornichons. A ruddy duck pâté. Broiled snails brimming with garlicky butter. Creamy bone marrow. Succulent mussels steamed in fragrant white wine. All so disarmingly simple, all so perfect.
So is the understated, delightfully urban setting. It’s particularly alluring at night, when the lights from downtown’s towers twinkle through the restaurant’s enormous windows and Minneapolis almost feels as soigné as a Cole Porter tune.
At lunch, a flood of mood-elevating sunlight accentuates the room’s warm woods, pale yellow walls, crisp white linens and gleaming glassware.
Though he’s a fleeting presence in his dining room, Francoual spreads his Gallic charm as thick as butter on toast; hearing him share an enthusiastic “fantastic” in his heavy accent rivals finding a silver dollar on the sidewalk on the day-brightener scale.
A generation of diners raised on novelty and innovation might find themselves yawning through seared foie gras, a fall-apart lamb shank and other segments of Francoual’s tradition-focused menu, yet others may sigh in pleasure at the kitchen’s innate grasp of cooking fundamentals.
What no one should underestimate is Francoual’s fascination with — and deft facility for — seafood.
Then again, riches abound at nearly every turn. If the lunch siren calls for a superb omelet, a spot-on Niçoise salad or a textbook croque monsieur, then Vincent is here for you.
Special occasion? Immerse yourself in the marvel of a six-course, $68 tasting menu. Snack-seekers should know that Francoual’s nose for French cheeses rarely fails him, and the man makes a wicked-good poutine, ideally paired with a glass of the bar’s French (naturally) pale lager.
The restaurant follows its own path to meat-and-potatoes enlightenment, starting with boldly beefy center-cut sirloins good enough to question a person’s allegiance to downtown’s steakhouse culture.
In Francoual’s hands, the lowly burger (or “ahm-bear-gare” in Francoual-speak) becomes a couturier’s notion of a Juicy Lucy, its thick center filled with slow-braised short ribs and smoked Gouda and served with a generous handful of slender, crispy fries.
The kitchen can sell 80 of them on an average day. “We make so many that the joke on the line is, ‘Hey, I thought we worked for a French restaurant,’ ” Francoual said with a laugh.
Pastry chef Ivan Martinez’s detailed-oriented work makes the restaurant a prime dessert destination. His pièce de résistance is a dream of a chocolate-hazelnut cake paired with a pear poached in red wine.
Grandiose and addictive, it’s an edible nightcap ideal for sharing over, say, a post-Mendelssohn discussion. Not that that’s happened in the past 15 months.
“It’s sad,” Francoual says of the musicians’ lockout across the street at Orchestra Hall, which has wide-ranging implications for his livelihood, since the concert crowd can constitute up to 40 percent of his weekend business. “I just don’t know what to think, only that I have no control over it.”
Fortunately, we have free will over other areas of our lives. Where we dine, for example. In 2014, I won’t be ignoring Vincent.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib