Fugaise: Have You Forgotten?

Tons of successful restaurants are hidden in obscure buildings or out-of-the-way places: duplex, cafe Levain, 112 eatery. In these cases, the humble, back-door, sidestreet locations seem only to make them hotter. . . .more desirable. So I can never figure out what, exactly, is going on with Fugaise.

The two-and-a-half year old enterprise of wunderkind Don Saunders (formerly of La Belle Vie and A Rebours), Fugaise consistently gets excellent reviews. Saunders serves a classy short menu of contemporary French cuisine with a beautifully-tailored wine list to match. And while his restaurant is a cool, windowless cave without a real storefront presence — sandwiched between Pizza Nea and a high-end baby store called Pacifier — it’s located on Hennepin Avenue North, just to the east of Surdyk’s. Not bad in terms of demographics: a great many well-heeled, wine-drinking people move through here.

Yet, despite a nearly pathological precision in the kitchen, and heaps of raw talent, Saunders and his Fugaise have never quite hit the big time.

This is the restaurant everyone means to visit, but they don’t. On the Friday night I was there, my friend and I occupied one of four full tables at 7 p.m. And I have to admit, I was offended on Saunders behalf: at two of the other tables sat people in scruffy jeans and weekend sweatshirts. I’m all for casual dress. But c’mon people: This is a really nice place and it deserves better than your Green Bay Packers gear.

We drank a bottle of the Bouchard Pere & Fils Bourgogne Rouge, a light, cherry Burgundy made entirely of pinot noir. Then we started with a butternut squash soup, which was nutmeg-laced and creamy, scattered with pecorino and drizzled with pumpkinseed oil. It was more delicate than most pumpkin and squash soups, which was nice, and a little sweet for my taste. But my friend loved it, and I am generally less inclined toward sweet than salty.

The second course, however, was perfect all the way around: Foie gras with carmelized apple and parsnip couscous on a bed of braised Swiss chard. The dish was finished with a Moroccan vinaigrette and full of those marketplace flavors such as pepper, mace, and allspice. The serving of chard was hefty, enough to get a forkful, and like the couscous, it was ideally cooked. Soft leaves under firm grains. The foie gras, from Hudson Valley, was tender and crustily seared.

With food this diligent in its marriage of color, nutrients, and taste, I find it’s easy to feel satisfied with only a small amount. This is the paradigm on which Fugaise operates: carefully prepared medium-sized meals with a basket of crusty, wholesome bread on the side.

Which brings me full circle.

Now, I don’t want to set off alarms. Other critics once sounded a "death watch," saying Fugaise was so slow it had to be on the way out. Not so. It turns out Saunders has a cadre of dedicated fans who keep the restaurant alive by booking it for private parties. He’s stopped serving lunch because, he says, it simply wasn’t worth it, given the overhead. In other words, Fugaise is getting by. But the dining public’s tepid response does, frankly, have me perplexed.

It is true that the decor is not for everyone: While other, more popular neo-French bistros go for the cozy, candlelit look, Fugaise is stark and silvery, with slashes of colorful modern art hanging on the walls. The name, too, is odd. People say it’s slang for a lot of things; Saunders claims it stems from a childhood nickname. Whatever the case, it’s not as approachable as, say, The Beautiful Life (La Belle Vie) or simply, Vincent.

Whatever the reason, people haven’t flocked to Fugaise the way one might expect. And time may be running out (remember, you heard it here). No, the restaurant is not closing for lack of business. But it may be closing because its chef — 31 years old and a brand-new dad — says he’s thinking about switching careers. After more than ten years of cooking, Saunders is going back to school to pursue his education degree.

The man wants to be a high school social studies teacher, in part so he can be home in the evening for Henry John, his now two-month-old son.

"Having a baby is awesome," Saunders says with a grin. "It’s definitely changed my life. It’s crazy how much Henry changes on a day-to-day basis. If I have a long day at Fugaise and go home, I feel like I’ve been gone a week."

Barring a fire in the kitchen, Saunders says he’ll probably stay open for the next two years while he earns his degree. After that, if the restaurant is doing well, he’ll stay on as owner and weekend chef. If not, no hard feelings, he’ll close the doors.

So in a way, the decision is up to you.