AFTER MANY CRITICS dubbed À Rebours the best restaurant in St. Paul, it would have been easy for chef Don Saunders to stay with the downtown bistro, sated with his success. Instead, the self-professed adrenaline junkie crossed the river and opened his own French-influenced restaurant.
Fugaise is a hidden, windowless space, accessed by a long hallway that looks as if it could be the entrance to a boutique hotel. The dining-room walls are taupe; ambient techno music plays. Add to this a series of abstract paintings—bleak, black, and desolate—and the room feels as stark as outer space.
In contrast to the neutral surroundings, the menu at Fugaise is a lively list of inventive combinations. On a recent night, for example, seared scallops were balanced with creamy leek custard, punctuated by capers and brown butter. A pork entrée was a study in variations on a theme, a combination of tenderloin medallions with braised pork belly (a rich, mild, almost buttery cut) and a cabbage roll filled with spiced ground pork. Its components were stacked sculpturally atop sweet apple bread pudding—the overall effect like an elegant Thanksgiving dish. Desserts, however, were best when simple: the purity of a dark chocolate flan upstaged a sweet olive-oil cake served with roasted pear and Stilton cheese (the latter made sense intellectually but befuddled our taste buds).
The difficulty with running an adventurous kitchen is that new dishes take time to perfect. An ahi tuna entrée was plated with a rich, sharp swirl of saffron beurre blanc and red-pepper vinaigrette—but it also included a pile of undercooked cranberry beans (similar to pinto) with a dry, mealy texture. The single plump ravioli that accompanied a generous portion of duck breast had a filling worth fighting for—duck confit mixed with apple and red currant and sweet spices—but its pasta wrapper was tough and dry.
Pricing entrées at $25-plus raises expectations for both the food and the overall experience. Service was crack one visit but lacked confidence another, as our server floundered to answer basic questions. Unfortunately, that was the evening we needed assistance. The only obvious choice for the vegetarian in our group was a mixed green salad, a combination of crinkled greens, grapes, hot/sweet curried pine nuts, and cheese that proved delicious but didn’t amount to much of a meal. He made do with sides of parsnip risotto and butternut squash soup but wished our server had told him the kitchen could create a vegetarian entrée, as Saunders says the staff is happy to do (for best results, make requests once seated or upon reservation).
Too critical? Perhaps, but only because Saunders represents the next generation of Twin Cities restaurateurs. As admirable as it is to aim top-tier, if he falls a little short, patrons may take their fine dining elsewhere—and not discover that Fugaise, a play on French/Italian slang for “fake,” is the real deal.