As many of you know, I cook. I test recipes, create new things, and buy too much at the Farmers Market. I have so much food around that I have to really make an effort to keep up with the restaurant scene.

So when a birthday comes along, it’s a good excuse to break out and seek inspiration at the table of some creative chef. I spend days searching the internets, looking for the perfect spot. This year, I finally made it over to La Belle Vie. For those of you who live outside the area, La Belle Vie is one of the restaurants in Minneapolis that gets national attention.

This is from their website:

“La Belle Vie is one of the Twin Cities most lauded restaurants, earning Awards of Excellence by both Zagat and Wine Spectator Magazine. Located in the 510 Groveland building in Minneapolis, La Belle Vie provides an atmosphere of elegance and sophistication from the dining room to the lounge.

Tim McKee, executive chef and owner of La Belle Vie, is the 2009 James Beard Award-winner for Best Chef Midwest. He is nationally renowned for his fresh interpretation of traditional French Mediterranean cuisine.”

I called a week ahead of time and made reservations for two, for a custom five-course vegetarian tasting menu, with wine pairings. Then I spent a week looking forward to it.

An award winning chef, inspired by the freshest and finest vegetables, how great would it be?

It was fabulous. One thing we will laugh about for a long time was a narrowly averted catastrophe. As we sipped our first drink, the server approached, and said, “By the way, you aren’t having the vegetarian menu, are you?” to my husband. We set our apologetic server straight, but the bias was plain. The veg thing is a chick thing. My sweetheart has been veg for 35 years.

Once we got over that hump, everything went seamlessly.

The blackberry cosmo before dinner

I was not that crazy about the blackberry cosmo, but I am not a cocktail person. It reminded me of emergen-C, or some kind of medicine. Looking back, I should have thought it through and realized that five wines was going to be plenty for me.

A lovely gougere, hot from the oven arrived, then some fine breads and butter.

A little bite to get you started

Then an amuse.

Tidbits of pickled radish, bocconcini, cucumber and fried tarragon garnish were atop a dab of cherry puree and tossed with sweet-tart cherry balsamic dressing.

Our Salad course was a lively pile of mache and croutons atop caramelized onions, with shaved Manchego cheese.

There are some tender asparagus spears under there, too

We were quaffing to keep up with the wine courses, enjoying a white burgundy paired with the tart salad. It even worked with the warm asparagus under the cool greens.

Next up, with a chilled French Rose, was a little vegetable stack, with a base of tender swiss chard, a layer of buttery sauteed chanterelles, some baby carrots, peas, frisee, and chervil.

Those mushrooms sang me a song

By this point the wine is going to my head, but I am enamored with the food, the service, and I take a pic of the staff at the wine table.

A Glass of Rose and the hush of white tablecloths

Our next course came, a pale green asparagus risotto, garnished with microgreens, shaved parmesan, and a tangy oven-dried tomato garnish. The tomato was chewy, like a moist fruit leather, and added a delightful contrast to the tender rice.

Asparagus Risotto

Then came a potato mille feuille, a stack of paper thin slices of buttery potato, with a crisp top, in a pool of creamy sauce, with a dab of herb emulsion, some thinly sliced sauteed peppers, and olives. A Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was served alongside.

The Mille Feuille

And of course, a special birthday dessert, an almond souffle, with fruit purees, a buttermilk ice cream quenelle, violas and a dark chocolate Happy Birthday plaque. A sweet, pink dessert wine that tasted like strawberries was served.

The summery happy birthday dessert at La Belle Vie

After all that wine, a shot of espresso was definitely appealing. Little did we know, an array of bite-sized treats would come along with it. An orange-infused truffle, an apricot gelee, a strawberry filled choux-pastry, and a little layered fruit and sponge cake finished the meal.

Espresso and precious bites

Tipsy but caffeinated, feeling like a member of the fine-dining class, I had to say everything was delicious. The service was top-notch, the setting historic and serene. The finest, freshest seasonal ingredients were prepared simply and with great care.

Every chef has her own expression of what a plant-based meal should be. This was very vegetable centered, with richness added with butter and cream, and cheese more as a garnish than a main ingredient. All the dishes had a delicate balance of flavors and textures, and were composed beautifully. Understated elegance is the theme at this destination restaurant, where the careful preparation demands that the diner eat mindfully.

Was I inspired? Yes, to keep striving to let great vegetables speak for themselves. Chef Mc Kee balances taste and beauty with great restraint, all for a sensuous experience.