Fhima's (St. Paul, MN)
By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
Fhima's, in downtown St. Paul, is an elegant restaurant. It has high ceilings, sparkling lighting and good, rich colors. A glass tower of wine divides the restaurant. There's an open kitchen towards the back. The effect is dramatic, and makes you feel like you've arrived when you are shown to your table. Given the vivid flavors and culinary chic of the Mediterranean and French dishes Chef David Fhima serves, a meal here can be a very enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, the food doesn't always rise to the occasion. It's presented well, but often falls short of the high expectations set by the décor.
Take the meritage tartare, for example. It's a plate of chopped sushi-grade tuna and sour cream, capers and shallots, served on top of slices of smoked salmon. The tuna was over-powered by the smoked salmon; the dish tastes like bagels and lox.
Better is a mixed plate called Moroccan tapas. These various spreads -- eggplant marmalade, tomato, chevre, roasted peppers -- are interesting and good. Spread 'em on foccacia, and share with your table mates. It makes a convivial appetizer.
Probably the best appetizer is the Petite Bouillabaisse, also available as an entrée. It's a complex broth with heaps of seafood: scallops, clams, mussels and shrimp. The carrots and parsnips may not be traditional, but they're welcome.
Entrees are a mixed bag as well. We liked the sole malaga. David Fhima doesn't believe, as so many chefs seem to, that "meuniere" is French for "greasy." His version is delicate and tasty, although the accompanying potato and cheese crisp should have been cooked longer.
The lamb tagine is delicious. Tagine cooking is a slow process, designed to tenderize the meat and mingle its flavors with the accompanying carrots, parsnips, onions, snow peas and chickpeas. The lamb is succulent and tender, and the combination becomes a stew flavored with Moroccan spices. It's great.
The identical dish made with pork, however, failed. It was served while the pork was still tough and not yet tender, and bordered on inedible. To the kitchen's credit, however, they remade the dish and removed the entire cost from the bill.
The "Most Beautiful Dish" award goes to the oven roasted Muscovy duck breast. Slices of breast meat came arrayed next to a layered stack of crispy wafers and bites of duck confit and braised cabbage. An architectural wonder, but difficult to eat. We recommend just taking the thing apart; the wafers soften right up after sitting a moment in the soy-flavored sauce. The breast was more well-done than we ordered, though not by all that much.
The artichoke risotto is well prepared, but the three cheeses dominate the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. Risotto is a filling dish, and this is a large portion. We recommend asking for an appetizer-sized portion -- of this or of the chevre risotto -- or sharing with your table mates.
Fhima's has an enticing dessert list, and the crème brûlée deserves special mention. The top is caramelized at your table side with a flatiron in an impressive show of steam and cotton-candy smell -- a fun end to the meal.
6 W. 6th Street, St. Paul
Cuisine Type: Mediterranean and French
Attire: Don't dress too casually, and you'll be fine
Diet Choices: Lots of seafood, vegetarian options are available
Children: No special menu for children
Smoking allowed in patio, bar and main dining room; not in formal dining room
Handicap Access: Yes
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