There was a time when food wasn't the focal point of Minneapolis' North Loop neighborhood. About a century ago, it was the epicenter of manufacturing — where the Mars family created its eponymous candy bar, and Waters-Genter Co. manufactured the first pop-up toaster. Few would predict that all this would vanish and be reinvented as a vibrant dining destination.
Noticeably missing was a good French bistro. Why couldn't we have the equivalent of St. Paul's Meritage on this side of the river?
I don't know if longtime Twin Cities chef/restaurateur David Fhima was looking to fill that gap when the owners of Ribnick Furs, the neighborhood's oldest retailer, jettisoned a 150-year-old building to him. But what he built in its place — a Moulin Rouge-themed restaurant called Maison Margaux — looked like he was.
The restaurant looks like money, in a way that everything feels maximalist. In the Brasserie, there are checkered black and white floor tiles, the kind you'd see in grand European restaurants. Behind the open kitchen is a quilt of Zellige tiles that recall Fhima's heritage. In the middle of the dining room is a maple-clad staircase, reminiscent of a lakeside cabin, and bisecting the two dining spaces is a blue-veined marble wall, imparting some kind of fluidity. The velvet dining chairs may be mismatched but are consistently filled. The Underground Bar, covered with red velvet, invites you to have a cold martini and excellent fries under a sultry canopy of strobe lights.
It can feel jarring. It also feels oddly right. Especially knowing the trifecta of cultural experiences (Morocco, France, the Midwest), and understanding that the Fhimas are no strangers to building splashy restaurants. Their theater district restaurant, Fhima's Minneapolis, has a knack for attracting decorated guests, including members of the Timberwolves.
Why not? The hospitality at both restaurants, under the baton of son Eli Fhima, is all coddle. Across my visits to Maison Margaux, even on occasions when I wasn't recognized, I saw grace notes being extended across the board. Servers move in synchrony, like courtiers in a palace — watching, anticipating and reacting — leading every guest to feel like they, too, held courtside tickets. If you strain your neck, even subtly, a server will appear, as if summoned by a rub of Aladdin's lamp.
You wouldn't know that Maison Margaux is at heart a Parisian brasserie, if not for the soft, lilting French tunes and this brand of service, which adds a note of unstuffy regality to the dining experience. You would know it by the food, some of which hews to the French canon — and mostly very good.
There is tender short rib bourguignon coaxed in a glossy red wine gravy, accompanied by vegetables that have been sculpted within an inch of their lives; a dark and deep onion soup, sweetly expressive of the vegetable; and probably the best bouillabaisse in town, if judging by all the generous frillery and a lip-smacking broth that plunges to the depths of the Mediterranean.
I remember them all fondly, though I derived equal pleasure decoding the subtle ways in which Fhima skirts tradition by drawing from his Mediterranean-influenced upbringing. He pulls a little Basque into the mix, using Espelette pepper in nearly everything from sweet jams to the ratatouille. And he cues Provence, making a compound butter with herbs native to that region and using it on the brioche buns for his burger.
The bigger riffs on classic dishes made me think. Bonne femme is sole traditionally prepared with heavy cream; this one is simply grilled and served with mushrooms and dressed greens atop it, along with a wedge of grilled lemon. He uses sauce chasseur, a tomato- and mushroom-forward compound sauce normally reserved for chicken, with halibut instead. It may also have been the worthier alternative because the fish is treated like meat, emerging from the kitchen uniformly and judiciously cooked.
But if there's one thing I remember, it's Fhima's triptych of bone marrow, duck confit and marmalade on toast. Our table enjoyed each component on its own — a faultless duck confit cloaked in a reduction as rich as a mole; fatty bone marrow; and a rhapsodic apricot jam that's been cooked in duck fat and Espelette pepper for 36 hours. But when our server suggested we put it all together, something else sparked: a taste that was wholly, deliciously new.
I wish the restaurant would lean into the eclectic more, yet every time I visited, I would surrender to the generosity that befitted all that maximalism. Sure, the sauces were taken right to the edge, until they became syrupy. But I found myself taking swipes of them with my finger, until the plates were clean. And yes, an otherwise well composed Nicoise salad lacked acid, but the tuna that eclipsed it was magnificently sized and seared until rare (for a more successful preparation, order the piperade, which swaps leaves in favor of the green pepper and tomato stew and a gloriously greasy sourdough).
This is likely why I gave the rack of lamb a pass — not just because it was succulent and well crusted, but because the sweet cognac sauce foiled the salty potato pave. And why I didn't pick on the overcooked dry beef patty within the burger because it was fried in so much of that herbes de Provence butter. I'd like seconds of either dish.
It's nice to see the kitchen get away with shortcomings that may befall other restaurants. Not others: I'm not sure if I would order the poulet roti again — the pieces were uniformly dry, though the juices from it seep into the gorgeously soft ratatouille, creating a nuanced vegetable meld. And I'd think twice about ordering the Gruyère soufflé, yet I couldn't deny that what arrived on our table, though noticeably undercooked, was nutty, sweet and creamy.
Other missteps are less muted. The wagyu steak au poivre cannot be faulted for anything other than the fact that it was lean and forgettable. Nor should the haricot verts; they were mushy for my non-Minnesotan tastes.
But the bacon and brie clafouti was as gummy as a vintage casserole; so, too, was the linguine in an overly salted pistou; and the gummiest of them all, the aligot potato purée — less velvety, more overwhipped and starchy.
That bonne femme never quite hit the mark, either. I was rightfully admonished the first time I ordered it deboned — and it was tough. "It's like making love," the elder Fhima tells me, when he noticed the fish on our table as it was prepared. "You need to put in the work."
I did the second time, when I ordered it whole, and was rewarded by a sweet and supple sheath of flesh on one side, where the meat was closer the bone. The other side was dry and fishy.
Desserts were mostly average, if judging by a dated and underbaked strawberry cake, a forgettable Frasier, and a bland pear tart begging for richness. Doubt melts, though, when you order the chocolate soufflé.
"All will be forgiven," Eli Fhima said as he set it on our table, plunging a heaping spoonful of airy whipped cream into its underbelly. I sunk my spoon in, too. Slowly to start, then more briskly until the whole thing was gone.
The second time I had it, the soufflé had lost its majestic swell, and it ate a little denser. True to Fhima's aphorism, I didn't notice. When tuned to the correct pitch, the pleasures of (great) hospitality can have its way.
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Location: 224 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-900-1800, maisonmargauxmpls.com
Hours: 3-10 p.m. Sun., 3-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 3 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. The Underground Bar is open Wed.-Thu. 5-11 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. from 5 p.m.-midnight.
Prices: Small plates range from $9 (pommes frites) to $24 (frog legs Provençal) with heavier entrees in the ballpark of $26 (pistou jambon linguini) to $65 (wagyu filet mignon Diane).
Beverage program: So many options. Craft cocktails, beer and ciders; a handful of spirit-free options; coffees, dessert wines and port. The extensive wine list will have something for every taste and price range.
Parking: Meter parking can be an adventure, but there's valet.
Tip or no tip: The standard tipping model applies here, although there is the typical 5% health and wellness surcharge.
Noise level: Comfortable, even in a full dining room.
Worth noting: The dining room opens daily at 5 p.m., but the main-level bar serves an early and late "social hour" with a limited menu. More spaces to explore: The patio off the bar, and a light-filled, upper-level event space. Don't miss the local artwork, either.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.