La Swell Vie

At La Belle Vie, give in to the exorbitant prices for an exceptional dining experience

It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and things at La Belle Vie are starting to get interesting. The food has been delicious—this hasn’t been called “the best restaurant in the history of Minneapolis” for nothing—but so far this evening, the room has felt a little too formal for festivity. La Belle Vie’s well-sourced wine list and haute French/Mediterranean fare (chef Tim McKee is one of only three Minnesota restaurateurs to be named a Food & Wine “Best New Chef”) tend to attract high-net-worth individuals, which tonight have included business diners, a group of society matrons, and a man who keeps sending back his wine.

But now that the kitchen’s about to close, those people have all gone home. Three couples remain. They are same-siders, twosomes who share the same side of the booth, and they’re all having the tasting menu. Jazz plays on the stereo, and the lights have been dimmed to their lowest glimmer, giving the buff-colored walls and gold tulle curtains a soft, dusty-orange glow. A couple of wine connoisseurs, having spent a few hours swirling their glasses and sniffing bouquets, are kissing. The woman has just removed the man’s necktie, and his top two shirt buttons are open…

With similar ease, the restaurant long associated with Stillwater seems to have settled into its new space, which was formerly occupied by the staid 510 Restaurant on Groveland. Most metro diners celebrate the change, but I am still a bit wistful for the old location. That La Belle Vie, a precious jewel box of carved wood and stained glass a half-hour east of St. Paul, was a true destination restaurant. The new digs, across the street from the Walker Art Center, are almost too convenient for us city dwellers—too close to seem as special.

Perhaps that’s why, on my first two visits, I took a less-than-formal approach to La Belle Vie, ordering off the à la carte menu on one evening and the lounge menu on another. My companions and I had a number of fabulous items: a generous bouillabaisse, a beet salad paired with a Parmesan panna cotta, beef striploin with Moroccan spices, mini croque monsieurs stuffed with ham and cave-aged Gruyère, a pomegranate-juice cocktail served with a skewer of caramelized ginger.

Not to mention McKee’s foie gras—one of the rare cases in which devouring the liver of force-fed ducks has seemed worth risking its ethical repercussions. Served in a ceramic tagine with braised apricots, the foie gras had a buttery, melting texture, defined only by its crisp, seared edges. It was absolutely over-the-top, like biting into a wide blue sky and running your tongue along the horizon’s edge.

Still, after a $90 meal in the lounge, my date and I had enjoyed ourselves—but not significantly more than we had earlier that week with $6 worth of takeout tacos, carried to a park in Styrofoam containers and eaten on the grass. Why was this? In part, I think, it was the à la carte ordering—it made me feel as if I’d purchased an entry-level Lexus and was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t sprung for the factory options.

A sea urchin custard combined a fishy flavor and mushy texture that just shouldn’t be mixed; a truffle fondue, presented with little more decorum than veggies ‘n’ dip, disappointed my do-it-yourselfer sensibility.

The lounge’s incongruous décor—pod-shaped stools and polka-dot carpet sharing space with chandeliers, crown molding, and oriental rugs—didn’t help. But perhaps, in the end, it was simply buyer’s remorse: why hadn’t we put ourselves in the hands of the chef and spent $65 or $80 each on the five- or eight-course prix fixe meal?

When I returned for a third visit and ordered the tasting menu, I realized that, for me, La Belle Vie works best as it did in Stillwater: as a special-occasion restaurant. As soon as I spent twice as much money, I more than doubled the value of the experience.

McKee kicked off my five-course meal with day-boat halibut, expertly cooked and served with a fine triad of umami-heavy flavors: one a stripe of pistachio-mint pesto, another a ragout of fava beans and pancetta, the third a golden purée of Parmesan leek cream. A crispy soft-shelled crab—posed in a whirl of spindly legs, as though breakdancing on the plate—perched atop a lobster–celery root remoulade (France’s sophisticated answer to tartar sauce) and a few thick noodles, my only displeasure being that they weren’t butterfly-wing thin. (Instead of adding a contrasting chewy heft, they reminded me of my first batch of homemade fettuccine, made years ago in a narrow Brooklyn kitchen, when I was too young and broke to own a Kitchen Aid pasta attachment, much less a rolling pin, and flattened the dough with a water glass.)

Then there was McKee’s rabbit loin: white meat, barely blushing in the middle, served with braised butter lettuce and a sweet curry sauce. It was followed by a grilled lamb rib eye—crusty outside, deep pink inside, paired with porcini mushrooms, cardoons (a celery-like vegetable), and crunchy cumin seeds. Service throughout the meal was so well executed that it was barely noticed.

Dessert at La Belle Vie is an absolute must. Pastry chef Adrienne Odom’s desserts are artfully inventive andan artfully presented salad as meticulously assembled as architectural models. (One nearby diner whipped out a camera phone to photograph his.) Each flavor pairing was exceptional: chocolate cakes and tortes served with rhubarb confit or passion fruit purée, a sweet/tart lightening on the tongue; ice creams burning with white pepper or salty-sweet caramel; a Meyer lemon tart topped with currants and lavender cream.

As my fork smashed up a beautiful construction and I devoured the entire sugary city, I realized that La Belle Vie is not a place for skimping. Devote yourself to La Belle Vie’s best, and you’ll be rewarded with a monumental experience. It’s enough to make you take off your necktie. Enough to make you kiss.

La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Avenue

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.