If you miss the restaurant signage, you may mistake the restaurant at the Canopy by Hilton hotel, at the corner of 3rd Street and Park Avenue S. in downtown Minneapolis, for the one that once peddled bacon flights served with shears.
Nearly everything from the former Bacon Social House remains. The dining chairs, vast open kitchen and plasticky booths. That Siberia of a dining section, to the right of the host stand. But in place of the old signage: "Chloe," in neon blue.
It tells you everything you need to know about Vincent Francoual's new restaurant, which opened in December in that very same location: that recycling for the sake of efficiency is fine if you make up for it with the food.
Because in some cases, he does. Dishes across his vast menu of French classics, served on attractive vintage-looking plates, are executed traditionally, and when they're off balance, it's only just. And mostly, it's because of seasoning.
"Is that why the salt and pepper shakers on the table are so prominent?" a dining companion asks.
It made a difference for a side of the haricot verts (green beans), which, despite being cooked to Thanksgiving-inspired oblivion, had the right depth from preserved tomatoes and garlic butter. Baked eggplant, while mushy, also tasted cleanly of the vegetable and olive oil. A generous addition of salt opened these dishes up as powerfully as a good decant does to an old Bordeaux.
It also made the cassoulet a dish I wanted to order again. Without it, the stew was almost there: fat tarbais beans, fall-apart duck, meaty pork-shoulder sausage and a broth that had the kind of body that renders it sticky after a minute in idle. In a good way.
And with a little more assertion, it would have made the escargots more flavorful. What I ate on a recent evening tasted of garlic and little of snail, which otherwise was cooked until it held an appealing enough of a chew.
The exception to all this is the skate wings. They are attractively bronzed, stretched across an oblong plate the way a hefty omelet is. There is no sauce, and even if there wasn't salt, you wouldn't know it: The capers, peppercorns and little diced apples provide more than enough seasoning.
Across a series of visits I came to the conclusion that most of the food at Chloe is enjoyable when you're in control, whether it's adding, subtracting or rearranging. A Vosgiennes endive salad didn't embrace the bitterness of the leaf because the dressing tempered it, and the otherwise fluffy fingerling potatoes were a strange inclusion. Removing those to the side and adding a squeeze of lemon did the trick.
Nicoise salad was a more thoughtful dish, but it, too, prioritized tuna (too dry), olives (too dressed) and artichokes (too briny) over the salad, rendering the dish clunky to eat. And the Normandy galette was challenging to appreciate beyond the beauty of its neat presentation; while the shrimp and mussels were precisely cooked, the pickled fennel took it all in a bitter, unsavory direction.
Not much can save the steak tartare, which had an overabundance of ketchup and what tasted like pickle juice that had soured. A matter of taste? I wish I echoed a more positive sentiment.
The transgressions are less excusable with the marquee entrees. With many tried and tested recipes for beef bourguignon, ranging from serviceable to extraordinary, the one at Chloe puzzles. On both occasions, the beef was tree-bark dry, and served alongside a potato purée as chalky and bland as instant mash. It all tasted of negligence, too.
Did the kitchen knowingly send out a simple roast chicken (the fricassee) that looked like it had too much sun? It arrived at our table dry and impenetrable, needing more than a jus; an optional side of béarnaise we ordered could have worked had it not been gloopy and taste overpoweringly of tarragon.
Francoual devotees may know better and order the classics that defined him and his Vincent, A Restaurant, which opened in the early aughts and ran for 14 years. Having never dined at that restaurant I assume higher expectations given his heritage (southwestern France) and stages (in European resorts and at two storied French kitchens in New York).
At Chloe, these classics encourage trial. I'm not sure if I will return for the burger that helped put him on the map — a slightly more upscale take on the Juicy Lucy, subbing pulled rib for regular beef and smoked Gouda for cheddar — because there are many others that trump it. But I will return for the textbook (albeit dated) scallops, with their dark, rusted hat of a crust and a velvety orange sauce that skirts the line between sweetness and acidity.
Some of the other memorable dishes are unadulterated. Like a duck pâté shrouded with pistachios and a bright relish; an onion soup lighter though no less gratifying than the one at Meritage; and a tarte flambee that gets its flavor from bacon and caramelized-enough onions. Never mind that the crust could be snappier.
And though the veal liver polarized our table, most agreed that it showcased the jerky-like meat in its full glory: intensely livery, adorned with sage and lemon.
Should you muster faith to stay for dessert, there are options. "Three Crème" presents a trio of chances to succeed, though none does — crème caramel as firm as a foam roller, chocolate pot de crème as lackluster as it as gray, a crème brûlée too eggy — and the crêpes are weirdly spongy. Best among the selections is the Floating Island, with a ramen bowl's worth of soupy custard under an airy meringue, and, credibly, Vincent's Childhood Favorites, which smartly pairs vanilla ice cream with petite madeleine cookies and a chocolate sauce.
Listen for the nightly specials and you might get lucky. Lamb-chop "lollipops" appeared as one during my most recent visit. I don't remember what was served with it because all I could recall was how moist, juicy and flavorful it was, and how it easily ranked as the best dish across the meals I had at Chloe.
If only this dish, and more like it, could tell us more about Vincent's cooking.
Location: 700 S. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-200-8041, chloebyvincent.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 4-10 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m. Brunch coming soon.
Prices: Appetizers range from $8 for a baguette and butter to $16 for escargot; salads $8-$15; sides and galettes, $5-$15; entrees $21-$38; desserts $8.
Beverage program: A respectable list of French (obviously) wines by the glass ($10-$18) and bottle ($37-$119), as well as classic and sparkling cocktails ($13-$16), beer ($6-$8) and dessert spirits ($16-$17). A couple of N/A options, too.
Parking: There's a nearby ramp and plenty of meters, but its proximity to U.S. Bank Stadium could make parking a challenge on event days.
Tip or no tip: The bill includes a now-standard 5% surcharge, but not a gratuity.
Noise level: Comfortable, even on busy nights.
Worth noting: The restaurant is named for Francoual's daughter, and it's her handiwork that greets visitors both as they enter and on the neon sign above the kitchen.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.