Vincent (Minneapolis, MN)

Even before it opened, Minneapolis foodies were buzzing about Vincent. Vincent Francoual left as chef at Café Un Deux Trois and would open his own restaurant. With a pedigree that includes sous chef at Le Bernardin in New York, he could have gone anywhere in the country. Instead, he chose to transform a former downtown chain-coffee and a chain-bagel place into his namesake restaurant. Is this a good deal or what?

As it turns out, it’s a very good deal. Vincent is just what downtown Minneapolis needs: excellent food at reasonable prices in a subdued yet lively atmosphere. There’s nothing we don’t like about this place.

The mood is sophisticated and relaxing. The off-white walls, large windows, and soft lighting are elegant without being pretentious. There’s a bar area on the left where you can also order from the menu. The tables are large and spread out; no crowding here. We would prefer a quieter dining experience, but know that a lively buzz is part of the atmosphere and we didn’t find ourselves shouting by any means.

Service is professional, efficient, and unobtrusive. No one wants to know how you’re doing tonight, or needs to tell you his name. There’s no “who ordered the chicken?” Plates appear when they should, and disappear when they’re finished with. You can linger as long as you like at your table; no one hurries you out the door.

The menu is spare, but interesting. The regular menu changes monthly, and the specials menu—called “Inspirations of the Moment”—daily, so anything we talk about here will likely not be on the menu by the time you get around to visiting. But since we’ve liked everything we tried, our advice is to simply order what sounds good. Likely, you will be pleased.

We’ve found the daily soups to be a good bet. The three-squash soup (summer, acorn, and butternut), served with a dollop of acorn crème fraiche, tasted like a bowl of Autumn: rich and flavorful. The curried carrot soup and a potato leek soup were both rich and delicious. And they arrive piping hot, unlike soups in too many other restaurants.

We also liked the sliced red beets and goat cheese appetizer. Not a salad, but thin slices of beet and small mounds of goat cheese. Delicious. The potato cannelloni of duck confit was the weakest appetizer we had. The potato and duck mixture was stuffed in a spring roll wrapper and then deep fried. Interesting, but too greasy.

Entrees are equally interesting and good. Our favorite is the sesame-seed crusted halibut, which is served in an Asian style, with shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, and a soy vinaigrette. Also delicious is something called “two way spring lamb.” This dish consists of four grilled lamb chops with Indian-style seasonings, and then a risotto-like dish made with an Italian barley-like grain called farro, served with shredded lamb meat. Farro has a nutty flavor that complements the lamb nicely. One of the varying sections on the menu is called “Something Strange but Good.” We found the braised tongue, served with cornichons, chives, and a mustard sauce, to be delicious, and not strange at all.

We didn’t care as much for the roasted Cornish hen. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, and the rosemary herb stuffing was very tasty, but other things on the menu were better. For one thing, we would have liked the rutabagas to have more of that strong, wintry, rutabaga flavor.

The lunch menu has a subset of the dinner menu, a daily omelet choice, and several sandwiches. The one we tried—chorizo sausage, Swiss cheese, and red pepper—could have been better. We would have liked the sausage to be less crunchy—either chopped finer or cooked longer. But the seared tuna club sandwich, with applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, and tomato, was worth a visit by itself. And we have no complaints about the desserts.

Vincent also has a nice wine list. It’s more broad than deep, and has many bottles at very reasonable prices. And about twenty different wines are available by the glass.

For what you get—the food, the service, the atmosphere, a Nicollet Mall location—the prices seem downright crazy. Nothing on the menu is above $20, and appetizers range from $7 to $9. And you can have one of the best lunches in downtown Minneapolis for under $12, less than many chain restaurants.

One of the best things about Vincent is the “not very hungry” (pas trop faim) selection of smaller plates. Finally, here’s a restaurateur who doesn’t insist on serving too much food from a menu not easily deconstructed. Too often we only want half an entree, or an appetizer and a little more. It’s nice to visit a restaurant that doesn’t require dinner to be a huge production.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.