Barely three weeks after opening its doors, Saint Genevieve feels like it has been there forever — not worn out, but comfortable and well broken in. The staff glides through the room, friendly and relaxed, yet professional. The space is welcoming, deceptively lived in, and convincingly French. The food is consistently well executed and very good. A precocious youth, Saint Genevieve already exudes the confidence and competence that we’ve come to take for granted at Tilia, Steven Brown’s other going concern.
Information about Saint Genevieve had been in relatively short supply since Brown’s initial announcement almost a year ago that he was turning the space into a “buvette:” a French tavern. It would be warm, relaxed, child-friendly, and for all of the neighbors in the surrounding villages of Lynnhurst, Tangletown, East Harriet, Kenny, and everyone else to boot. When the paper came off the windows and the heavy doors swung open, Saint Genevieve was revealed — in the copper, zinc, and marble style of Tilia — to be just as it was billed.
Brown has created an homage to the institution of the French cafe with an eye-catching level of handsome detail. The tilework surrounding the bar, the gorgeous wood and glass entryway, the gold foil embossed coasters (which beg to be pilfered and indeed have already been spotted at a local house party), the front window shutters that promise the eventual return of warm breezes to Minneapolis — every detail elevates the experience, making a fantasy Paris cafe into a reality. The only way in which it doesn’t feel truly French is in the amount of space between tables. You don’t have to turn sideways to navigate and you won’t elbow your neighbor while eating.
On one visit, we brought a real, live 5-month-old human child to test the restaurant’s claim of child-friendliness, and it passed with high marks. We were offered a highchair at least three times, and one server suggested a different table that we might find more comfortable (an actual comfortable table, not a little table in a dark corner, out of sight of all the beautiful people). This timbre carried over to the adults as well. Our server was always available and never obtrusive or intrusive, hurried or harried. He encouraged a leisurely pace. Saint Genevieve wants you to have space and time.
As for the food, the small plates that we tried were all playful riffs on well-known French themes. The foie gras ($15) was dressed as an elaborate mille-feuille. Delicate pastry was piped with a custardlike foie, topped with orange marmalade, and literally spiked with crispy ham. We were torn about whether the interplay of sweetness, citrus, and saltiness would be best served as dessert or breakfast.
The shrimp bouillabaisse ($13) was our favorite of the small plates. Three lightly dusted, perfectly cooked shrimp gazed out from under a bridge of grilled bread over a pool of sumptuous pho-like broth. It was billed as a fennel broth, and picked up an aroma of star anise. The lamb tartare ($11) was a close runner-up to the bouillabaisse. With a heavy North African influence, delicate lamb was stuffed into a rolled cigar of dough, surrounded by bits of black olive and preserved lemon, and dusted with za’atar. It was a novel and accessible alternative to (as some might say) an off-putting pile of raw meat and egg, dolling it up but leaving intact its raw, beating heart.
Less radiant were the brandade ($8) and the potato pavé poutine. The brandade, a hot dog shaped croquette of salt cod, spurred a debate among the late-night staff about whether the plating more resembled a child’s toy race car with hard-boiled egg wheels or a toy for mommies and daddies. The breading was delightful but the airy interior was all pleasant texture and no taste. It was a fancy fish stick served over sauce gribiche, essentially a fancy tartar sauce.
The potato pavé ($8) was similarly impressive in technique, but prosaic in taste. Thin slices of potato, pressed together with Parmesan and cream, cut into rectangles, and beautifully browned, were laid atop gravy and barely warm cheese curds that weren’t worthy of the marquee player. Nevertheless, interesting eats to accompany a nightcap.
We found the tartines to range similarly in boldness of flavor. The Tartine Madame ($11) was made with Red Table Meat Company ham and Patisserie 46 bread, and was covered with bubbly melted cheese and a sunny-side egg. This comforting French classic required no playful alteration. It was a superstar, and it appeared to know it, visiting nearly every table, winking with its single open yellow eye.
The salmon tartine ($14) was surprisingly monotone. The fish was gently smoked, and the uni butter added only the slightest tang to the dish. With radish slices and sorrel, it had an enjoyable interplay of textures but was ultimately unmemorable. The Crétons tartine ($10), topped with emulsified pork, was likewise mild in flavor but lacked the textural interest of the salmon tartine.
Saint Genevieve offers a short lineup of large plates. The trout ($25) left us amply impressed. A whole fish is artfully deboned, lightly floured, and stuffed with a shellfish boudin blanc. Warm spices evocative of Chinese five spice powder mingled with lemon and herbs. The crisp skin and tender meat contrasted perfectly with a scattering of crunchy apple julienne and wilted greens.
The duck ($23) was a less unified dish. A tasty, salt-flecked rare duck breast with crackling skin was served with roasted red potatoes and pickled red cabbage that tasted more overcooked than fermented. Seared discs of duck confit were the fatty, crispy highlight of the dish.
Saint Genevieve has a carefully chosen wine list that includes several bubbly choices, and the staff is knowledgeable about the selection. Wine is offered by the glass and half glass to allow for ample sampling. The wide-ranging tap beer list varies from Roselle, a refreshing hibiscus-infused sour ale from Fair State in Northeast Minneapolis to the classic German Sunner Kölsch.
Be advised: Do not skip dessert or you will miss the brown sugar date cake, a dessert so overwhelmingly delicious, so soul warming, so comforting, that you’ll want to lay your head on the table, if not on the plate itself, and close your eyes while you eat it. The accompanying cheesecake ice cream would have overshadowed a lesser cake, but together they make a mighty duo. If you order a second dessert, order a second brown sugar date cake. Or possibly consider the excellent lemon soufflé, which deftly toes the line between sweet and tart.
Saint Genevieve is decidedly French without being remotely kitschy. It exists for the neighborhood, not the tourists. No frog’s legs, no le cheeseburger, no steak with bearnaise. Their approach to French food is reverent, yet fun and flexible, borrowing occasionally from the former French colonies to add some warmth and novelty to classic dishes like the tartare and the bouillabaise. While there were a few weak points, the food was excellent overall, the service was outstanding, and the ambience was lively and comfortable. The quiet opening seems to be steadily turning into a roar.
French tavern in Minneapolis
5003 Bryant Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
Owner: Steven Brown
Executive Chef / Chef de Cuisine: Paul Backer / Jason Hansen
Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Sat-Sun 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Bar: Wine and beer
Vegetarian / Vegan: Yes / Ask
Entree Range: $8-$25