Review: Fhima's Brings Flair Back to Downtown Minneapolis
The French eatery marks a comeback for a local chef and a classic space
TL;DR review of Fhima’s:
- Fhima’s finally gives us a reason to go downtown in Minneapolis just to eat.
- Best cocktails downtown. Get something on fire—Old Fashioned, Smoke in Her Eyes, Make It Bun Dem (a riff on a daiquiri).
- Amazing bread from the mother dough that chef David Fhima brought from France, which dates back 100 years to his grandmother.
- African, Spanish, French, Italian influences all over the menu. Get these items: Togarashi tempura frog legs, gnocchi with rabbit and gorgonzola cream, organic spring chicken, lamb tagine.
In many ways, they are perfect for each other: the flashy French immigrant who rose to the top of the Twin Cities restaurant scene and then fell to the bottom, and the glimmering, iconic Art Deco room that’s been home to rock-star restaurants like Goodfellow’s and flashes-in-the-pan like Jim Ringo’s Forum and Il Foro.
Both are back. Chef David Fhima has pulled off the improbable, bringing life to a seemingly cursed room in a dead part of downtown Minneapolis. He’s doing it with innovative and theatrical cocktails, a smart menu of approachable yet interesting food, and the potential to make this a place to see and be seen.
First, some Fhima history. He ran Mpls. Cafe in the early ’90s, Chloe in Uptown, Fhima’s in downtown St. Paul, Louis XIII in Edina’s Southdale Center, and LoTo in Lowertown St. Paul, which was replaced by Faces Mears Park. Famous for his tagines (North African stew), he’s always brought a combination of French, Moroccan, Spanish, and Italian flavors to the table.
Those influences are all on display at the Fhima’s of today. Shakshuka may be the hottest dish in the Twin Cities right now—poached eggs in a spiced tomato sauce. Often, shakshuka can lean toward a runny consistency. Fhima’s is thick, rich, and served in a perfect, flaky tartine.
The frog legs at Fhima's
Do frog legs sound like a blast from French restaurant past? They’re reinvented here with a Togarashi-spiced breading and a meaty frog leg (from a farm in central Minnesota), served over luscious saffron polenta rectangles and an English pea cream sauce.
Don’t miss the gnocchi bathed in a stew of gorgonzola and braised rabbit. It’s listed as a small plate on the menu, but this is a hearty dish that could easily be an entrée. It combines earthy cheese and some of the most flavorful rabbit I’ve ever had.
Lots of easy, approachable dishes, too: Spanish merguez sausage with tater tots, asparagus with a heavenly hazelnut butter, roasted bone marrow with an African chermoula. You can assemble a fun group meal with small plates and appetizers, but if you want main courses, the organic spring chicken is outstanding. The whole bird came out gleaming, thanks to a red wine glaze and an incredibly flavorful pesto butter. A bargain at $25.
As I mentioned, Fhima is known for his tagines, and the lamb shank tagine lives up to those standards. Tagine is always a sensory experience, and this one is extremely aromatic thanks to cinnamon and rose water. The overnight braising makes the lamb incredibly tender, but it doesn’t fall apart. Fhima’s uses the hind shank, which is meatier than the typical fore shank. This makes it a very hearty dish, with a $39 price tag.
Not everything is perfect, though. Piperade is a Basque dish made with onion, green peppers, and tomatoes that is spiced with a French red chili pepper called Espelette. Fhima’s served it on bread, topped with a fried duck egg, and the Espelette got lost in translation. Not enough pop.
Service is a work in progress. Friendly but not yet polished. (This is a challenge we’ve seen in many new restaurants.) All the smoke and fire at the bar can also slow things down when it gets busy.
Fhima is an outsize personality, and I say that as a fellow outsize personality. He’s equally at ease schmoozing with big-name athletes (he’s the executive chef for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx and recently redesigned Target Center concessions) and CEOs (he worked for Life Time Fitness’s Bahram Akradi). Instead of having to run the kitchen, the bar, the bread, the pastry, Fhima uses his experience to lead a great team. Chef Patrick Atanalian runs the kitchen—a highly creative and skilled French chef whose innovation sometimes got weird at the highly underrated Sanctuary Restaurant in Minneapolis. Here, Fhima reins in Atanalian, and Atanalian pushes Fhima.
The creative tensions show in Sean Jones’ cocktails, which are the best by far in downtown Minneapolis. Jones learned his craft at Parlour Bar and has worked at many of the best bars in town. Here, he uses smoke, fire, and drama—not as a gimmick (well, maybe a little as a gimmick) but to enhance every drink with theater. Take, for example, the Telephone Call from Istanbul, an Old Fashioned with a hint of chai spice. They light a wooden board on fire and smoke the drink tableside.
But Smoke in Her Eyes (at right) is the true showstopper. Tequila and mezcal with matcha tea give it an enchanting green color, then it’s poured into a smoke-filled bottle for a quick shake. It’s among 2018’s best cocktails.
This can be a special-occasion spot, but the menu lets Fhima’s work as a frequent stopping point, too. Where else downtown will you find a $5 Fulton Sweet Child of Vine, or a $5 Deschutes Fresh Squeezed? There’s a nice Loire Valley Sauvignon blanc for $8 a glass and a $9 Gamay from Beaujolais.
With most of our restaurant action happening in St. Paul’s Lowertown and Minneapolis’ North Loop, Fhima’s finally provides a reason to get excited about going out in downtown Minneapolis.
40 S. 7th St., Minneapolis