Over the past two decades, chef David Fhima has opened and closed so many restaurants that, when faced with insomnia, a person could attempt to recite them, by name, in lieu of tallying sheep: Chloe, Mpls. Cafe, Fhima’s, Louis XIII, LoTo, Zahtar, Faces Mears Park. Did I miss any?
Yet it’s that admirable falls-down-and-gets-back-up track record that may make Fhima the most qualified candidate to brave the restaurant quicksand that is otherwise known as the former Forum Cafeteria in downtown Minneapolis.
Dripping in mirrors and chandeliers and awash in mint green and silver — picture the soundstage of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance number — the gasp-inducing Forum should be the heart of the city, and yet it has somehow been depressingly shuttered for most of the past 14 years.
Enter Fhima’s Minneapolis. It’s the seventh enterprise to take on this priceless but seemingly cursed Art Deco confection since the original namesake tenant closed in 1975. And it just might be the one with staying power, because although the restaurant isn’t perfect, it shows all kinds of promise.
Several key hires demonstrate Fhima’s savvy approach to animating this hallowed environment. A looker of a bar has quickly become the native habitat for beverage director Sean Jones. The Parlour and Bittercube vet is forging the Forum into a cocktail aficionado’s destination with his bare hands, acute imagination and technical know-how. Go, imbibe. You’ll love it.
Pastry chef Jaclyn Von is another talent worth watching. I admire the way she sneaks the unctuousness of foie gras into chocolate and butterscotch without allowing the savory to dominate the sweet, and how, in an elegant Pavlova, she adds dimension to citrus with pops of saffron. Von’s remakes of All-American classics — banana cream pie, carrot cake — are witty and pretty.
Her glamorous work can also demonstrate a sense of occasion that suits the Forum’s singular setting. Sure, she can hit the just-right lusciousness of crème brûlée, but she burns the sugar — with no small amount of glee — tableside, wielding a theatrical branding iron. A ’90s flashback of a molten chocolate cake (radiating a tantalizing level of bitterness) is masqueraded by placing it within another floor show, a flaming, Instagram-ready baked Alaska.
Love those sardines
Fhima, one of the region’s most charming French expats, continues his melting pot ways of old, culling elements of the bistro, contemporary, Moroccan and American cooking from his lengthy résumé.
A don’t-miss dish is an affectionate nod to his mother’s cooking. It’s lamb, nurtured in the oven for eight hours until the succulent meat falls off the bone. Even better is pissaladière, another uncomplicated classic that Fhima’s mother frequently relied upon to feed her large family.
The golden, blistered dough has a slightly earthy quality, and it’s topped with an eternally appealing combination of onions and anchovies. The former are Vidalias, caramelized into velvety sweetness, and the latter are silvery Spanish beauties, bearing a clean marine bite. Fresh thyme and Himalayan salt are the finishing notes, and they all add up to a top-performing flatbread.
A tartine is similarly appealing, with a sturdy house-baked sourdough piled high with piperade, the traditional Basque dish prepared with sautéed onions, bell peppers and tomatoes that Fhima finishes with a pepper-flecked fried duck egg. The results make for a simple and satisfying shared starter or an impromptu meal at the bar.
Parchment-thin and beautifully garnished raw venison (love that sweet-tart mustard) tasted as good as it looked, no mean feat; ditto the bone-in pork tenderloin, with its quirky orange marmalade flourishes. Also enjoyable is colorful raw tuna, finished with bright citrus accents. Creamy bone marrow comforts on a cold winter’s night, as does a spiced-up lamb sausage that’s served with cheese-filled tots.
Far less interesting are a pair of so-so steaks, an odd choice with so many steakhouses nearby. A North African spin on fried chicken sounded promising but fell flat.
The kitchen needs to sharpen its consistency skills. For example, a whole spring chicken was a delight on one visit, the crackling skin in vivid contrast to the juicy meat; on another, the results were limp, stringy and flavorless.
The menu can be jarringly expensive. One of Fhima’s best efforts — snowy white, wondrously delicate sea bass contrasted by a vibrant bouillabaisse-inspired broth — would be better if the massive portion and price ($42!) were both cut in half. That happens, a lot.
Lunch consists of a few dinner holdovers (a gorgeous mushroom-wild rice soup, shakshuka-inspired mussels) plus a handful of salads and several well-composed sandwiches. Prices average $15, which feels like a missed opportunity for luring even a smidgen of downtown’s enormous daytime population into the place. If new generations are going to fall for the Forum, the effort is going to require more than a popularly priced happy hour.
At dinner, it’s lovely to see how several endearing niceties are observed. The bar offers a salutation in a glass, and Von sends out pint-size treats with the tab. Then there’s the swell iteration of that endangered species known as the bread basket. Fhima is an accomplished bread baker — his secret weapon is a live starter that dates back to his grandmother, which has been an asset that blesses everything it touches — and he’s constantly fiddling with baguette, focaccia, brioche rolls, challah buns and other carb-laden delights.
Fhima has proved to be a fine steward of this treasured property, with one glaring exception: the addition of a series of oval-shaped booths that are enclosed with tall, shower-curtain-like panels. Although semi-transluscent, these Bed Bath & Beyond crimes against Art Deco flatten the room’s effervescent, see-and-be-seen fizz.
Make it stop, please. Other than that, Fhima has the right attitude.
“I love seeing people walk in, look around and go, ‘Wow,’ and so I hope we are doing it justice, I really do,” he said. “It’s the kind of place that inspires you, that tells you that you’d better make food that respects the history of this place.”
Info: 40 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-353-4792, fhimasmpls.com
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri. Dinner 5-10 p.m. (bar open to 11 p.m.) Tue.-Thu., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (bar open to 1 a.m.), 5-9 p.m. Sun. (bar open to 10 p.m.). Reservations accepted.
Service: Welcoming and well-intentioned but not always commensurate with the prices. The kitchen’s pace can be languid.
Price ranges: At dinner, starters and small plates $8-$19, entrees $27-$55, shared sides $10, desserts $9-$13. Lunch items $12-$19.
Recommended dishes: Pissaladiere, piperade tartine, shakshuka tomato tartine, venison carpaccio, wild rice soup, bone marrow, lamb tagine, pork chop, desserts.
Beverage program: Vivacious, first-rate cocktails ($13) by beverage director Sean Jones. The around-the-world wine list includes 19 by-the-glass choices (average price: $12) and a number of value-priced options by the bottle.
Special menus: Social hours (3 to 6 p.m. Sun. and Tue.-Fri., 9-10 p.m. Sun. and Tue.-Thu., 10-11 p.m. Fri.) include food-and-drink deals.