Downtown's restaurateur of the moment

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

David Fhima will headline a high-profile restaurant/club at 7th & Hennepin -- the latest of six in his stable. Here's why the big-money guys pick him.

When developer Tony Barranco made a list of potential restauranteurs for his plan to make over Downtown's Stimson Building, Mpls. Caf/ owner and chef David Fhima was the first person he called.

Fhima, 43, and Barranco will fill the high-profile, long-vacant space at 7th & Hennepin with a three-tiered, 6,300-square-foot tapas restaurant/bar and a Latin nightclub sometime in spring 2005.

Barranco said he considered Minneapolis-based D'Amico & Partners and Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the name behind several popular Downtown restaurants, such as Oceanaire and Manny's, to headline his $4 million-plus investment.

Barranco was more impressed by Fhima's attention to detail in day-to-day operations and an obsessive approach to customer service. The restaurateur has a habit of greeting nearly every customer and calling those he misses the next day at home.

"Little things like that speak volumes about his passion for success and his passion about making people's experiences great," Barranco said.

Barranco said Fhima's multicultural background also gives him an advantage in the highly competitive restaurant world.

"The fact that he's French and Moroccan really has given him a taste of so many different cultures," he said. "That gives him a lot more depth than a lot of other restaurateurs and developers who haven't strayed as far from home."

To say Fhima is the restaurateur of the moment is an understatement. The Stimson project follows on the heels of Lo To -- a bakery/caf/ and bar opening this fall in St. Paul's Lowertown -- and a Chicago project.

Fhima's three new eateries will add to a stable that includes Southdale's Louis XIII, which opened three months ago, featuring French cuisine with an Asian flair. Fhima also runs his namesake, Fhima's, an upscale downtown St. Paul restaurant, and his first Twin Cities venture, the Mpls. Caf/, 1110 Hennepin Ave. S. in Downtown's Laurel Village complex.

Chef and impresario

Fhima has a seemingly endless reservoir of energy to devote to his ventures. Fhima, who lives in Southwest Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood, often works 14-hour days, six days a week. He keeps Sundays free to be with his four children: Chloe, 13; Elijah, 10; Miryam, 4; and Racquel, 2.

Before settling in Minneapolis, Fhima was something of a nomad. The restaurateur's menu reflects his travels. He describes it as a "melting pot" of influences -- from French cuisine with an Asian twist to Spanish fare with contemporary American accents.

Fhima was born in Casablanca, Morocco, to Moses, a Sicilian Catholic, and Marie, a French-Moroccan Jew. He was the eldest of 10 born to the couple. His father also had seven other children from a previous family.

Fhima inherited his culinary gene from his mother, who cooked everything from various types of couscous to rabbit stews.

"My mom is the most phenomenal chef in the world -- by far. ... You have to be an incredible chef to make do with little and cook for so many kids and have everybody eat the same thing," he said. "If you came to my house and you looked for me, you would find me under my mother's skirt."

He was the taste taster for all his mom's dishes. "I've always loved food. There was nothing really that was ever put in front of me that I didn't want to try."

As a teenager, he attended boarding schools in Paris, London, Strasbourg and Geneva. He kept ditching them, he said, because he hated school.

Fhima said he finally got his act together in Strasbourg, at age 15. He also went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the urging of his parents -- a career he never pursued.

"It serves me really well because I am very analytical about how I conduct my business. It serves me well in the business world -- in the dishes. My dishes are geometrically put together -- there's a lot of symmetry to a lot of things I do," he said.

Fhima's entry into the Minneapolis food scene came after a stint in Los Angeles where he worked at several restaurants and met his ex-wife, the mother of Chloe and Elijah.

She missed her native Minneapolis and Fhima agreed to move, leaving behind a successful career.

"It was very humbling to move to Minneapolis. You come from L.A., you think you're the hottest chef -- you're going to do all these things, you're going to take the town by storm," he said.

But it didn't happen that way.

Fhima applied for several jobs, including one to be Prince's personal chef. He decided to turn down the offer to pursue work in fine dining. At first, he had to settle for Champp's -- a sports bar that was not exactly highbrow fare.

After he left Champp's, a mutual friend introduced Fhima to Phil Weber, owner of the Park Tavern in St. Louis Park. The pair worked together to launch the Mpls. Caf/ at Minneapolis' Calhoun Beach Club 12 years ago.

Fhima started out as a minority partner in the restaurant and eventually became a full partner, buying out Weber, who decided to devote full attention to the Park Tavern after his daughter was born.

"The guy has a natural, God-given talent for the business," Weber said. "My skills are parallel to his in some areas, but he leaves me at the starting gate when it comes to food knowledge and everything else."

Fhima said Weber had some doubts when he first started unveiling his cuisine creations, such as soft-shell crab with caviar oil. "I remember doing really upscale, very elaborate foo-foo stuff at the Calhoun Beach Club, and I remember Phil saying, 'David, we're not going to stay in business if you do stuff like that.'"

However, Fhima remained determined, and cultivated loyal patrons who followed the pair Downtown when they moved the Mpls. Caf/ to Laurel Village, a 727-unit Loring Park apartment building eight years ago.

"For the first two years, it was touch and go for a while because that's a tough spot -- a terrible location," Fhima said, who credits his "hands-on" customer service with making his business profitable.

About five years ago, the pace of business started to pick up, after the restaurant started attracting a late-night salsa scene. "I had to think outside the box," he said.

Fhima's work drew the attention of then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Someone from Coleman's office called Fhima about a vacant, city-owned downtown St. Paul space that needed revitalization. After $770,000 in city subsidies, the $3 million Fhima's was born at 6th & Wabasha.

Said Fhima, "The city wanted a cultural as well as a culinary change to downtown St. Paul, and we were able to do that. St. Paul had never had the nightlife that it [now] has, and Fhima's is really the reason for it.

"It was a hit right away because we did innovative cuisine in wonderful atmosphere ... blue lights, sheer drapery, contemporary bar, dishes that people had never heard of before," he added.

Mark Besser, Fhima's partner, called Fhima a dynamic entertainer who specializes in creating an upscale scene that doesn't intimidate casual diners.

"He most definitely has a passion for the industry -- a passion to entertain. And when I say entertain, that's dinners, the experience, the food, the atmosphere," Besser said.

Fhima's concept for Hennepin Avenue is equally vibrant. He boasts that the Stimson's three-tiered restaurant/nightclub will be the state's first "real" tapas bar -- a distinction to set his idea apart from neighboring Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave. S.

If Fhima has competition for "hot," it's Solera's chefs/owners Tim McKee and Josh Thoma. They have earned rave reviews for their tapas restaurant that features a rooftop deck with great skyline views. "Food & Wine" magazine listed Solera as one of the world's top 10 new restaurants. Next spring, the duo will reopen their acclaimed Stillwater restaurant, La Belle Vie, across the street at the old Fairmont Hotel, 9 S. 9th St.

McKee doesn't seem to be threatened by the competition. "I'm pretty interested in what [Fhima] is doing. He's introducing another cuisine to the area -- some Moroccan influences," McKee said.

Fhima's authenticity distinction has more to do with the restaurant's layout and design than its tapas.

In his new three-level restaurant, patrons would sit around a large bar lined with glass displays showcasing the tapas plates. "It is basically like a liquor bar, however you not only order liquor and wine, you also order food that is displayed right in front of you," Fhima said. "Behind the counter, you have chefs handling your orders."

Guests could also choose to sit at a sit-down tapas restaurant on the mezzanine level above the bar. The space might also become home to the Mpls. Caf/, depending on the outcome of negotiations over the Laurel Village space, he said.

"It would be like the tapas bars you see in New York and Chicago," he said.

With a Fhima touch, associates add.

Michael Nissen, a bartender at Louis XIII, said Fhima has inspired him to kick back and celebrate more, regardless of the occasion. "He wants people to have fun," he said.

Said Fhima, "I love taking care of people. And I do it genuinely, and people know that. If you greet them and make them feel like a million dollars, they want to know that you're making them feel like a million dollars -- not because you want their million dollars, but because genuinely that's how you feel."