Brasserie Zinc (Minneapolis, MN)

Zinc is a French brasserie, and specializes in French, mostly southern French, country cooking. Think mussels, salade niçoise, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, that sort of thing. We think the restaurant is beautiful and like being there. But the kitchen tries much too hard, and the results often fall short.

The decor is striking. The white tile walls are covered with mirrors and French food posters. A long, hand-carved dark wood bar flows down one entire side. The rest of the large room has some high-backed banquets and varying levels that make the place seem both cozy and cosmopolitan at the same time. Sometimes the effect can be disconcerting: One late-afternoon visit, we were sure the restaurant was empty. However, we could hear laughter coming from somewhere and we knew the waiter didn’t bring all those plates of food to an empty table.

Maybe it would be better if he had. We had such high expectations on our first visit. After all, Brasserie Zinc is one of Kieran Follard’s restaurants. We love the food at Kieran’s, and often ate at The Local before they stopped serving dinner. Zinc’s menu looked so promising.

Our first disappointment was the fondue. This was a ramekin filled with goat cheese mixed with black olives, leeks, and tomatoes and baked until bubbling. The goat cheese gave the dish a little bit of a sour taste and a grainy texture. There’s a much better execution of this concept at The Loring; they use artichokes instead of leeks and better cheese.

We also cannot recommend the bouillabaisse or the onion soup—both were much too thin. The tarte Tatin was more American pie than French tart. And the squash ravioli tasted bland.

At Zinc, your best bet is to stick with the simple preparations. Their excellent raw bar illustrates this nicely. You can order their clams and oysters individually or as a plateau assortment.

We ordered the petit plateau, and were presented with a large ice-filled bowl on a tall stand—too tall—we generally like to be able to see the food we’re eating. It was also difficult to deconstruct. Smack in the middle of this ice bowl was a champagne glass filled with a god-awful champagne-tomato-whatnot granitée; we couldn’t see what we were doing, and managed to fling ice and langoustines everywhere in an attempt to pull it out.

The oysters were fresh and interesting, as were the wonderful clams. The shrimp were basically a vehicle for the tame cocktail sauce. The langoustines, once we chased them down, were tough, watery and overcooked. Best skip the drama and just order a plate of oysters and clams.

The pot-au-feu is another example. It came in a tureen large enough for two: a good stew served with a wonderful piece of chicken. The skin-on chicken was crispy without being greasy. The stew broth was obviously made from fresh stock, and all the ingredients both retained their flavors and blended nicely with the others. But it was made with way too much celery, even for Karen who, nearly alone in the universe, likes lots of celery. You’re better off ordering the roast chicken off the menu.

Save room for the steamed mussels, which alone make Zinc worth visiting. Bathed in wine, shallots, herbs and butter, this is the kind of food we fly to France for. Order a side of pomme frites, which will forever ruin your taste for fast-food fries. They come in a paper sleeve inside a metal cup: hot, fresh and crispy, but not greasy. Eat them alone, dip them in the fresh mayonnaise, or use them to sop up the marvelous broth.

And when you run out of frites, use the bread. Zinc serves some of the best baguettes in the Twin Cities. If you play your cards right, you can make a meal out of mussels and bread.

Also a bottle of wine. Zinc’s wine list is expertly crafted. It’s more than 250 bottles long, and sprinkled with both inexpensive wines and interesting, moderately priced wines. French bistros should have lots of cheap wine choices, and Zinc does a great job there. Their beer list is filled with French and Belgian beers. Our only quibble: no cider.

Service was efficient and friendly, no matter how many times we sent our servers back to the kitchen to check on some obscure ingredient in our food. Prices are reasonable for Nicollet Mall; appetizers under $10 and most entrees under $20.

Brasserie Zinc is aimed at downtown business crowds who want someplace pretty to look at. It’ll definitely impress your client, or your date. We’ll come back for a plate of oysters or bowl of mussels at the bar, but we’ll go elsewhere for dinner.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.