La Belle Vie (Stillwater, MN)
By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
La Belle Vie is a destination. Not only is it all the way out in Stillwater, with its antiquey weekender charm, but Executive Chef Jack Riebel heads a kitchen that makes dinner the star. The French-Mediterranean menu changes twice per season, and highlights both fresh ingredients and Riebel's current inspirations. With muses like seafood, local produce or farm-raised game, dinner at La Belle Vie is a creative delight.
A glance at the menu from our latest visit should hearten the adventurous diner: there's no chicken. Now sometimes they do serve chicken, and it's quite good chicken. There's nothing wrong with chicken -- except that it's widely known as the safety meal for the timid. There's no safety net here, nor any need for one.
Indulge in the beef loin topped with braised short ribs: no bones, just melt-in-your-mouth richness. It's inspired, perfectly prepared and wonderful. Or choose salmon, ahi tuna or lamb. Vegetarians: make a special request. The kitchen will happily accommodate most dietary needs or restrictions.
The menu's international grace notes highlight a progressive kitchen. The chefs at La Belle Vie are not coasting on nouvelle French cookery, wonderful though that is. We had a marvelous bouillabaisse, it's true. But we swooned over blue marlin ceviche with lemon sorbet, too. The appetizers we most recently tried included foie gras, tapas and bruschetta: practically the triptych of Euro-cuisine.
Even the salads are presented with interesting new twists. The endive and arugula salad was transformed with black truffles and black walnuts. The ubiquitous beet salad was served with ricotta and a poached egg; how oddly delicious. But the food here is not weird, challenging or in any way alarming. Your taste buds will assure you that it's just fabulous.
The service, alas, is not on par with the kitchen's marvels. If you are the sort who wants your cheese plate before dessert, and who, moreover, wants the house's suggestions on what order to eat those cheeses, you may be disappointed. Your waiter may not remember who ordered what and disappear for long intervals. But the wine list is both interesting and affordable, and the sommelier is knowledgeable.
La Belle Vie is tucked into a 100-year-old former storefront, where beautiful original woodwork and stained glass windows cast an intimate aura in the front dining room. You feel ensconced in remote special surroundings as you watch the traffic moving slowly past on Main Street. It's the perfect place for a romantic dinner for two or an intimate dinner party for six.
Chefs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma created a foodie mecca when they opened La Belle Vie in 1998, and their pedigree at D'Amico Cucina and Azure ensured instant success. Riebel, the long-time executive sous-chef at Goodfellows, took over the kitchen in February when McKee and Thoma opened Solera in downtown Minneapolis. And he's certainly left his mark on the menu. La Belle Vie is for people who love innovative and interesting food.
La Belle Vie
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.