I first enjoyed Chef Tim McKee’s cooking at Solera in Minneapolis in late 2004. I remember being astounded by his finessed flavors and innovative twists on Spanish tapas.
I kept the menu from that meal and I recently dug it out to see what I had eaten. Even now, I’m impressed by the types and range of foods McKee was putting out there for Minneapolians.
Among the fourteen (14!!) tapas dishes my friend and I tried were rabbit loin with artichokes, mushrooms and lemon, cepe-Mahon croquettes with roasted garlic aioli, shrimp with leek flan and Portuguese piri-piri sauce, lamb carpaccio with tomatoes and avocado, seared foie gras with fig halves, and octopus ceviche with hot pepper and cumin.
And, the desserts we tried were equally inventive and satisfying. There were warm, comforting churros, dusted with sugar and cinnamon and sided by a rich spiced-chocolate sauce. “Dessert tapas” featured five bite-size sweets. There were squares of dark chocolate, drizzled with fruity extra virgin olive oil and dusted with crystals of sea salt. A touch of kir was added to cava and topped with cassis foam. There was flan, spiked with espresso and encrusted with “kikos” (corn nuts), and goat cheese cheesecake.
I mean, this is the same Midwestern city (heavily Scandinavian-populated. I might add) that sent the widely acclaimed Marcus Samuelsson, chef of the famous haute Swedish restaurant Aquavit, packing his knives back to New York after a good 4 1/2 years of business the same year.
Now five years after its opening in Spring of 2003, Solera’s still going strong.
When I ate at Solera in 2004, I was aware of Chef McKee’s other, more “serious” restaurant, La Belle Vie. Unfortunately that restaurant had closed and was in transit from its former suburban home in Stillwater to its current location on Groveland Avenue across from the Walker Museum.
Content with my fond memory of McKee through my experience at Solera, I overlooked visiting La Belle Vie on subsequent trips to the Twin Cities. Four years later, with a James Beard nomination in McKee’s pocket (and, another one shortly after my visit), I thought it was time I called at La Belle Vie.
The food at La Belle Vie isn’t flawless. Dry rabbit loin is never fun.
But, the service certainly is. I can’t say that our server was the friendliest, or most approachable person I’ve ever met – a little robotic and distant, actually. But, she was tremendously attentive, and so was her support-staff: silverware was seamlessly dropped and cleared, wines were presented at just the right intervals and with confidence, and any and all questions about the food were handled professionally and efficiently.
The tasting menu presented an 8-course adventure:
Amuse Bouche: Dungeness crab fritter.
1st Course: Nantucket bay scallops.
2nd Course: Sauteed daurade
3rd Course: Taleggio agnolotti
4th Course: Pan-Roasted poussin, brown beech mushrooms, and smoked pork belly.
5th Course: Grilled peppercorn-crusted lamb ribeye.
6th Course: Quince and Massipou cheese.
7th Course: Candied kumquat with blood orange.
8th Course: Chocolate-chestnut beignets and chocolate-chestnut creme brulee
As always, you can find all of the photos from my meal on my flickr account.
The highlight of the meal, for me, was not actually any of the food (though the Nantucket Bay Scallops and Taleggio Agnolotti were quite memorable). It was the wine. Actually, it was one of the wines: a glass of Tommaso Bussola “L’Errante,” 2003 that was paired with the lamb. It’s a blend of 80% merlot and 20% mix of Cabernet Franc and Sauvingnon. It hit me with gobs of cherry jam and left me with a nice resonating afterglow of a slight, not unpleasant, bit of earthiness. The pairing with the food – especially the rich reduction sauce that pooled around the earthy, sweet garnet yam puree – was dead on brilliant!
Those Nantucket Bay Scallops, in season at the time, were perfectly cooked too. The marshmallow-sized morsels of sweet meat bounced with intense freshness. The coupling of creamy nuggets of foie gras and crisp matchsticks of tart Granny Smith apple was an odd, but not unsuccessful accompaniment.
The agnolotti were produced the biggest mouthbang of the evening. McKee packed a surprisingly amount of flavor into those dumplings. The pasta wasn’t draw, but it certainly wasn’t bad, either. The filling, however, a pungent and nicely seasoned buttery crema, played nicely against a hazelnut emulsion.
The combination was nuanced and novel.
And, so was the cheese course. A thin shaving of Massipou (a French mountain sheep’s cheese) leaned onto a pretty, rosy round of poached quince sat atop of a round of dense, yet crisp and flaky, pastry (think shortbread crossed with puff pastry) and attended to by swatches of quince syrup. What at first seemed like cheese accenting another dessert, the cheese – slightly musky with a leathery saltiness – actually took the lead role on this dish. The sweet-tart quince fell back and played a nice accompaniment and the crisp tart provided a sturdy base and textural counterpoint.
Desserts were something of a success, though, like many restaurants, the pre-dessert was more brilliant than its often more sombre and burdened successor.
The pre-dessert featured a sprightly arrangement of blood orange sections – fanned out like a starfish – garnished with sweet, candied kumquat and a spectacular sabayon creme brulee. It was dainty and daft.
La Belle Vie offers one of the most elegantly-appointed dining rooms I’ve seen in the Midwest. I was quite surprised by it. The configuration of the restaurant is quite odd, however. Guests enter through the lobby of what appears to be a(n older) condominium building – it reminds me of an old European hotel lobby.
The bar, which offers it’s own menu, sits off to one side of the lobby – somewhat segregated, but highly visible. The host stand at the entrance to the bar lounge serves both the lounge and the dining room, which is across a foyer, around the corner and down a corridor. It’s completely separate, and quite far from the bar.
The main dining room is stately and shockingly spacious; decked with chandeliers and shuttered with gauzy curtains. We were seated in this room, but the frigid draft from the gigantic windows was intolerable and we asked to be relocated to the interior dining room, which seemed more cozy and was less drafty. The staff accommodated the move without a flinch. (I especially love the large canvas of clouds in the interior dining room; I wish I new the artists name and the name of the piece of artwork).
With the exception of one or two restaurants in Kansas City, and probably over a half-dozen in Chicago, Tim McKee’s level of cooking at La Belle Vie is truly extraordinary for this region. He pushes the boundaries of culinary adventure for the Midwest palate, showcasing non-intuitive, yet approachable, combinations with tremendous success. Stylistically, his plating is also noteworthy – clean, eye-poppingly colourful, and straightforward, its artistic without being fussy.
I wish Chef McKee the best of luck as he contends for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Midwest Award for the second year in a row. He’s a worthy nominee.
La Belle Vie
Executive Chef Tim McKee
510 Groveland Avenue
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55403