I almost hesitated to ask Chef Russell Klein how Downtown St. Paul was faring these days. Despite the best efforts of local politicians and business owners, a rash of restaurant closings in past years confirms the difficulty of attracting the kind of impulsive, 20-something foot traffic Downtown Minneapolis enjoys.
However, Meritage, a brasserie offering French classics with a twist, has brought in the regular customers Klein prefers.
“They’re not looking for cheap beer—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but there’s a different clientele that we get: the people who patronize the arts and the Wild fans,” Klein says.
I would guess that besides Klein’s incredible skill in the kitchen (his food made me blush on three separate occasions), Meritage’s success is because of a flexible menu, offering the accessible as well as the adventurous at multiple price points.
“When we wrote the menu,” Klein explains, “the idea was, if it’s Tuesday night, and you don’t feel like cooking, and you want a relatively inexpensive bite to eat, you can come to Meritage to get a burger and a bottle of wine without spending much money. On the other hand, you could spend a lot more, too, and if it’s a special occasion, we can do that really well.”
Yes, Meritage does have a burger, trussed up with garlic aioli and shallot confit for a neat $10.
The wine list is a masterpiece: around 180 selections, ranging from the mid-$20s to $350. Numerous choices can be difficult to navigate, but the front-of-house staff proved their merit with perfect pairings—for example, the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec that brought out the brightness of the olive oil in the Roasted Wild Striped Bass ($27).
Starting off with a selection of Klein’s “amusements” ($3 each) is a perfect way to explore what the brasserie has to offer. My dining partner and I indulged in the Tiny Tuna Tartare Taco, the Oyster-Bloody Mary Shooter, and the Braised Beef Strudel. It was difficult to pick a favorite, but the tartare, bound with creamy horseradish, and nestled on a bed of sweet shredded carrot, has stayed in my sense memory—the first blush of a night’s tryst with fresh, locally grown ingredients in perfect harmony. The shooter was a natural follower, spicy and balanced. And the beef (oxtail) strudel was an early indicator of Klein’s passion for a more assertive meat, to be echoed in the must-have Roasted Rack of Iowa Lamb ($34).
“We buy really good ingredients—the best we can—and we try not to mess them up,” the frankly spoken Klein shares. “We buy this really great lamb that comes out of Iowa right now. It has a wonderful lamb flavor, as opposed to the stuff that comes out of New Zealand or Australia.”
Klein also has a knack for reworking classics, while remaining true to his training under the French master Jacques Pepin.
For example, Klein’s Parisian Style Ricotta Gnocchi ($9) eschews the humble potato in favor of pâté à choux, substitutes a traditional basil pesto with a puree of arugula and walnut, and replaces a heavy tomato sauce with a brighter concassé. The result is instantly recognizable as gnocchi, with a tangible difference—the traditionally hardy dish is now playful, sensual, and light.
The gnocchi was followed by the bass, served with fava beans, artichokes, olives, garlic confit and fresh herb olive oil, and bresaola (an air-cured beef). Pairing fish with thin strips of beef may seem counterintuitive, and in less capable hands it even may be counterproductive, but Klein’s bass holds its own, pan-seared to a crisp on the outside, easily plied to a tender, delicate flesh.
The enticing bass made it very difficult to save room for the promised rack of lamb. I was raised in a household heavily influenced by Jewish cooking—accordingly, lamb was the holiday fare of my childhood, and it remains my favorite indulgence. With the promise of a more flavorful version done two ways (rack of lamb, and lamb shoulder wrapped in caul fat and braised), I had been looking forward to trying it above anything else. I am happy to report that the cost of importing lamb from Iowa, as opposed to that of heavily subsidized New Zealand or Australia, is worth every penny. As much as I hope to try other selections on the frequently changing menu, I know myself: Upon my return, I’ll order the lamb again.
My dining partner and I were treated to a perfect summer evening, so we chose to eat outside. Surrounded by lovely fresh herbs and flowers within Meritage’s custom ironwork patio, it was the perfect backdrop to an exquisite meal.
I hope to duplicate the experience if Mother Nature cooperates. That I will enjoy Klein’s cuisine again is a certainty.
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul