In the year 2023, a person of a certain worldliness in the United States learns to be jaded about crème brûlée. There it is at the airport, a puck weeping in plastic, defeated. There it is, caught in aluminum foil on a tray hoisted by an exhausted cater-waiter at an event whose pleading eyes meet yours: Relieve me of these failures? You avert your gaze.
You almost forget that a crème brûlée was once a voluptuous, irresistible seductress—that is, until you’re in the basement bar at new Maison Margaux. This basement bar is sultry in tones of crimson and coal, with a wine nook and velvet and art deco Folies Bergère marquee lights—and suddenly she’s there. You see her, under a glass cloche, smoking. Smoking and trembling in her vaporous veils. Me? Me! you think, you hope, as she approaches, borne by a server, who, with a showman’s flourish, jiggles and rotates and lifts off her glass cloche, clouding smoke upon your table, sugar smoke, the smoke that says: Come closer; bring a spoon. And there you are, rendered as soft and trembling as your voluptuous companion! Crack the lid, those shards of caramel, promises of a good time. That custard, eggy, yellow—the apex of custard, fresh and simple—so pure. You feel the joy tingle up your spine and explode with a hail of blooming fireworks, sparking every single pleasure center in that tired junction where brain meets body. Oh yes, this is crème brûlée. This is what a crème brûlée always was in the before times, before everything got exploited and diminished and sad and all messed up. This is crème brûlée when she was rare, when she was a goddess.
And she’s back, baby! At Maison Margaux, the latest David Fhima restaurant, which has transformed an old furrier’s lair near the Mississippi River in the North Loop into three levels of every kind of French food and French pleasure from the before times, before they all got loved too well and diminished in the process. Top floor at Margaux? A blond wood banquet space for weddings and meetings. The main floor is posh as a palace: one entire wall glossy Venetian plaster that looks like marble, one room cozy and blue like French breakfast, the main dining room light as a greenhouse with big windows and big art, and a bar that’s little and sparkling. The basement is as sexy as can be, the top destination in town for chic French vampires.
To this critic, even though I’ve known for years that Maison Margaux was coming, to see it once the doors opened this summer was shocking. Like someone plopped a whole Paris destination into Minneapolis—and you can rush up and down the stairs, summon an important old wine, fall into rapture with a crème brûlée, groan with pleasure, clink your glasses.
This is joie de vivre! That zesty thing the French get and we Minnesotans need. Bouillabaisse, the best I’ve had in my life. Broth of a thousand threads, braided like a ship’s rope into one new completeness of both strength and power. Textbook moules frites with herbal broth; tender, clean mussels; the French fries caramelized brown and still tasting of the good earth and real spuds. Classic halibut, thick cut, skin curling and crisp, meaty as a steak, still tender. Duck confit, also so on point. Cut it with a spoon, rip into a baguette made with the starter a family has been cultivating for 130 years, dip the bread in the treacly glaze that spruced up the confit, and devour. Before you know it, you’ll start looking for strangers to tell: “This is a French restaurant! This is it; this is it!”
I say this as someone who has been to a great number of David Fhima restaurants and found something wrong with all of them. Louis XIII? Needless fusion. Mpls. Cafe? Reach exceeded its grasp. LoTo? Like taking a pirate’s treasure chest and wearing everything in it, when the choice of a few tasteful bijoux would be enough. (“I called you my cactus,” he says of my barbs over the years.) The whole time, other critics insisted, “But he’s an exquisite French chef; you have to admit that.” Do I? I wondered. OK, finally, yes, now I do.
Born in Casablanca in the 1960s, David Fhima—the eighth child, first boy, to a Jewish mom and a Sicilian Catholic dad—felt the pressure as the rising son and keeper of the now famous family bread starter. At 7, he was sent to boarding school to make good and support the poor family, but he was headstrong and rebellious and was kicked out of two boarding schools for offenses ranging from sneaking out to talk to girls to talking back. His last option, at 15: vocational school, which included cooking.
A good move, it seems, as the plot shifted dramatically with a meteoric rise, then stints in Paris and Marseille and Saint-Raphaël. He’d work prep and a dinner shift in a restaurant till close and report to a boulangerie at midnight or 2 am to make baguettes and viennoiserie. All the while, the teachings of French chef, restaurateur, and innovator Auguste Escoffier were drilled into Fhima’s bones and bloodstream.
Then, in the 1980s, he was off to Los Angeles! (“We were the Eurotrash; we were a nightmare; we had so much fun,” Fhima recalls now.) He watched his fellow line cook Wolfgang Puck make a bazillion dollars innovating. “You see him put salmon and cream cheese on pizza—the rest is history! You see all of that, you think, I am just as good. OK, he did pizza; I’m going to do that but more.”
So, he did what a young chef might do: bought wine for his future restaurant, fell in love, and in 1994, drove a U-Haul of mostly wine and a few suitcases across the country to Minnesota to set up a new life innovating. “If I could go back, I would,” Fhima tells me on the phone when I call him up to try to figure out how the bad boy of Minnesota restaurants in the 2000s and 2010s found his way back to the kind of cooking where he makes two separate fish stocks, called fumets—one of roasted fish bones and one of lobster shells—to blend for his bouillabaisse. “Wisdom happens to all of us if we live long enough and listen, put our egos and pride to the side. I had all the tools, all the knowledge, all the skills, but I wanted to do something different for the sake of being different and new. I thought: That’s what will make you famous and all that—no. Minnesota has been humbling and amazing! It allowed me to get to this point right now.”
His aha moment, and the seed for the pearl that is Margaux, he says, came during the pandemic, in the terrifying early days when everything was shut down and no one knew what came next. He was making baguettes for himself at Fhima’s, in the majestic art deco landmark downtown, and he got to wondering: Why did I invest so much energy in trying to make breads that weren’t in this market, particularly at Faces Mears Park in St. Paul, breads that I’d never made before, when I used to make 300 baguettes every morning as a teenager? I know people like baguettes. I like baguettes. I like them so much I make them for myself in tough times—why am I thinking baguettes are some lesser thing just because I did not invent them and they are not new?
A couple million bucks and a full building renovation later, this return to basics has created a Paris of such vitality in a single building in the North Loop that it is nothing short of breathtaking.
Fhima’s lifetime companion, baguettes, are a big part of new Margaux. They come to the table in a bread basket, sliced, beside little brioche buns, also developed from the Fhima family starter. The baguette is light. It has that unique, yeasty, summer-hay scent of good bread. It’s fun to dip it in the creamy whipped butter and compare it to the richer, eggier brioche. Even more fun: Try it as a garlicky toast as you spoon opulently rich roast marrow upon it, or revisit it as a toast beneath garlicky rouille with that bouillabaisse.
I could rhapsodize about the bouillabaisse till the end of time. The broth of such potency, the little inset seafood bits of such delicacy, including the fat scallops and perfect shrimp, sliced and cleaned but still within the shell for that added boost of flavor. I’ve had many bouillabaisses in my well-fed life, and this red-broth, multi-fumet version is my new lifetime champion.
It is very nice beside, say, a 2011 Burgundy grand cru or a Saint Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône, inky and slaty. If you’re a wine person, go early to get a half hour alone with Margaux’s astonishing wine list, which includes some of Fhima’s original cache, driven here from Los Angeles 30-odd years ago, as well as prize plums of Fhima restaurants long gone, creating a list with a depth and range unheard of in a new restaurant.
The desserts are likewise unmissable. Instead of hiring a pastry chef, Fhima plumbed his personal history as a baker in Paris boulangeries, and what he came up with is fantastic. One standout of note: a version of the classic berry fraisier, but made with rich gâteau Breton so that the final cake has gorgeous density but also clarion-bright berry flavor.
After so many years in the Twin Cities, Fhima has identified his favorite small-farm eggs and fresh, high-butterfat cream, and he uses them to truly gorgeous effect, not just in that crème brûlée but in two other custard-based gems: a coconut upside-down custard served in a sort of roast pavlova marshmallow ring, a dessert that manages to explore the depths of richness but still come off as light, and a pear tart, with pears poached in Armagnac, sliced and encased in airy pastry with a custard heart. Pastry nuts, if you don’t just go and have a custard tasting with coffee or Champagne, you’re missing out.
While I do mourn that we have missed out on Fhima’s Escoffier perfection until now, it’s here, and it’s ours for the taking. Are we, as a society, exiting the time where value was assigned simply for running fast and breaking things? I hope so. It is very sweet, this return to the old ways, when crème brûlée lived as a god and was enough.
224 N. 1st St., Mpls., 612-900-1800