Editor’s Note: Vincent – A Restaurant is now closed.
There is something luxe about dining at Vincent – A Restaurant. Even a midweek lunch, even on the most impossible spring day — when chunks of ice are flying down Nicollet Mall and pummeling the restaurant’s great windows — even when the dining room is filled with grownups in fussy work clothes. Even when all these things would signal otherwise, the light-filled dining room, the low murmur of conversation, the comfortable chairs, and a glass of wine at your elbow (if you’re lucky) all conspire to create a relaxed air. It feels like a real break in the day.
The other day, we had just such an experience as we lingered over the Signature Prix Fixe Lunch ($13.50). The prix fixe offers two courses, with a choice of Belgian endive salad, an open face sandwich of leg of lamb, or a farro risotto. We opted for the latter and were not sorry for it. Non-rice grains can sometimes fail to produce the creaminess that risotto implies, but this was not so with the humble farro. It came off elegantly in the buttery mascarpone broth, a nutty companion to the warm tomatoes and sweet squash mixed through it. Anchoring the plate: a duck leg, cooked to perfection — soft meat, crispy skin.
For our second course, we chose the chef’s choice cheese over a crème caramel. The plate was small, just a nibble of Gruyère de Comté served alongside a dollop of marmalade, a few red stems of micro chard, and a tiny pile of dried fruit and nuts, all of which enhanced the toasty flavors of the cheese. It was a light and satisfying end to a rich meal.
We also enjoyed the omelette du chef ($11), which featured goat cheese and a very mild chorizo and was most remarkable for its lovely creaminess — it was difficult to tell where the egg ended and the cheese began. And, of course, there was the famous Vincent burger ($15.50). There’s a reason why this burger wins “best of” time and again. As our dining companion said, “It is just exactly the burger you crave to beat a hangover.” A savory but not overly spiced, patty of ground beef stuffed with braised short ribs and smoked gouda and served on a toasted bun, it was texturally perfect and sublimely juicy.
Thinking back on the meal, it was flavorful and satisfying. Yet in the age of foam, gel, and unexpected pickles, these plates were relatively uncomplicated — no bold flavors, no cheek, no surprises, just very simple French cuisine prepared beautifully.
Of course, the same might be said of other fine dining restaurants in town, but as a chef and restaurateur Vincent Francoual has been lauded for serving classic French cuisine with a twist of the experimental, eclectic, and inventive. We wondered why he would choose now to tone it down. “Nowadays, the new food, I feel like it’s based more on beauty first and then the taste after,” Francoual answered, “and that’s why, while I think it’s interesting, I don’t apply it as much here. We all read the same cookbooks, all the chefs in town, so I don’t believe there is any more creation. The only guy who really reinvented food was Ferran Adria, but I think this reinvention is a slippery slope. What I like about cooking is that you don’t control it, and everything with modernist cooking, all the additives, is about control.”
“So when the foodies come in here, I’m a bit stressed,” he adds, laughing. “As you say, the bell and whistle, the technique, it is interesting to people, but I have as much fun cooking a burger as I do searing a foie gras.”
So for the moment, Francoual says, he is less focused on invention than on cooking straightforward dishes that combine three or four flavors with minimal additions, perhaps for texture or adding structure to the sauce. “We try to keep it simple. That’s why I have a white plate: I just want the food to be natural.”
We certainly found this to be true when we returned to Vincent for dinner.
The brown butter skate “revisited” ($13) was served lukewarm and, also unusual for fish, had a creamy texture almost like a rillettes. A puree of chickpea and preserved lemon balanced out the butter, while a fried caper added a wonderful crunch of salt. It was a favorite of the table.
The kitchen was kind enough to divide a bowl of Ezilda soup ($9) into four espresso cups — each one with a bit of toasted crouton, a curl of cabbage, a few savory white beans — so that we all could sample it. It tasted of sage, sweet clear broth, and comfort; it was the perfect foil to a snowy evening.
We also devoured a plate of escargot ($12), and while the little snail bodies were delicious, none of us were ashamed to admit that most of our delight was in dipping our bread in the garlic parsley butter.
For dinner there was a cassoulet ($28.25). Served in an earthenware cassole, it included traditional Tarbais white beans, preserved duck leg, garlic sausage, and pork sausage. Although delicious in its individual bits — snappy sausage, slightly toasted beans, fork-tender duck — as a whole its flavors were very soft, and we thought almost too uniform.
This may have been the chef intentionally leaning toward the inherent flavor of the meats. “If I give you a protein, I want you to taste the protein,” says Francoual. “If you are going to have a salmon, I’m might to try add some spices to enhance the flavor the salmon more than to cover it up — we really try to keep things simple.”
We did not try the salmon, but we found this philosophy carried out in pan-seared beef tenderloin ($41) that was cooked to an ideal medium rare and modestly spiced with salt and pepper. It was served alongside whole, sweet cipollini onions and gouda mashed potatoes, but we were partial to a salty rainbow chard that made a perfect bite with flavorful steak.
Similarly, our bowl of steamed mussels “mariniere” ($21) were plump and tender, with the butter and wine playing up the naturally sweet and rich side of the bivalves. They were served alongside French fries that were crispy on the outside and tender inside, but still tasted like potatoes — and provided a fantastic sop for the shallot, butter, and wine broth.
The star of the meal was a braised lamb shank ($25), cooked for 48 hours, so that it arrived at our table falling off the bone, sweet and mild, and fragrant with winter squash, cinnamon, fennel, and rosemary. It sat on a fluffy bed of couscous, slivered almonds and golden raisins, a delicious use of texture.
We could not skip dessert, of course. Vincent’s childhood dessert ($8) was a dreamy combination. A pitcher of warm chocolate sauce, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a handful of miniature Madeleines, light lemon cookies with a cake-like texture. The sauce was all cream and cocoa, only lightly sweetened — we were tempted to drink it. Also popular: The floating island ($8) a delicate poached meringue afloat in a jam jar of luscious creme anglaise (we did drink it).
Alas, many of these items are set to disappear with the snow. Like all of us, Francoual is looking forward to spring, and the end of the April will see a brand new menu that merges the best of the bar and restaurant menus, plus a few new items.
Among the highlights, there will be a new and lighter lamb shank with rosemary, red wine, and dried prunes. A shrimp wrapped in brioche and served with — despite the chef’s modernist misgivings — a deconstructed deviled egg. A new grill section will include such delights as côtelettes de porc, a very thin pork chop with herbs de Provence and a side béarnaise sauce. There will also be a “convivial” section of the menu, dedicated to plates for sharing.
For the vegetable lovers, Francoual has added an artichoke dish in which the heart is braised and then halved, so that one part can be pureed, the other fried. And he’s working on an escarole dish. “A lot of people can sear meat or fish,” he says, “but it’s hard to get creative with vegetables and make it flavorful, so vegetables really excite me. I feel like I am an old fart, excuse my French. I’m not really trendy when it come down to food, but I love to have a beautiful plate, I love good flavor.”
And what about the magical hamburger? Yes, it will still be on the menu, the chef says, with maybe a note of sadness. “Ah yes, that’s all Vincent – A Restaurant will be remembered for is a burger, but I like it.”
That and much more we expect, but if we’re throwing things out there, we will remember the comfortable elegance of Vincent’s dining room and stellar service we received. From the wine recommendations to the extra step of dividing up our soup, everything was done with care and warmth — our server had a hearty laugh and was attentive without squishing us. Our meal was well timed, and it was possible to converse without screaming. It was, actually, convivial.
“To me, food is a way to enjoy the present moment and to be with people,” says Francoual. “I mean, we all need to eat to survive, but then I also believe that food is about sharing. Sometimes I joke: We have a strike across the street at the orchestra; I think I should prepare a meal for everyone together — the management and the musicians — and we can find some way for people to talk to each other through the meal. So I think conviviality is very important. I just love when guests are having fun here, around the table.”
Best bet: Braised lamb shanks — and, after, the floating island.
Vincent – A Restaurant
French in Downtown Minneapolis
1100 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
CHEF / OWNER: Vincent Francoual
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE PRICE: $15-$45