News-A-Rama

Restaurant Massacre in St. Paul; Top-Secret Most-Ambitious-Restaurant-Ever Debuts in Minneapolis—What a Season!

So, in sum: The most luxurious luxury hotel ever in the history of Minnesota is debuting a new restaurant, gestated by super-chefs, executed by one of the greatest home-grown talents we have, all so we can have a new definition of excellence in local dining, to open in December.

Remember how last winter we wondered whether independent restaurants could survive, when so many deep-pocket restaurants were opening attached to hotels, theaters, museums, and such? Well, get ready for more of the same: Starwood, the hotel group, has five, count 'em, five luxury hotels opening with big-destination restaurants in the metro in the next year: Hotel Ivy; the W at the Foshay (now not scheduled to open till August '08); something called an Aloft Hotel, which seems to be boutiquey and ultra-contemporary, near the Guthrie; a Westin attached to the Galleria in Edina; and, finally, a Sheraton in Woodbury. Is it possible the scorched earth of last winter in Minneapolis was merely, like, one of those ecological prairie-type things where you need the fire so the new seeds can sprout?

If I were a St. Paul booster I'd certainly hope so. Okay, in case you have not been keeping score at home, downtown St. Paul started its year with three restaurants that are no longer with us: Au Rebours, Fhima, and Café Margaux. They all closed, with Au Rebours and Café Margaux's demises particularly taking most people by surprise. So: Is St. Paul dead? Is St. Paul over? Is St. Paul—whoops! Don't finish that thought. St. Paul's back! The Au Rebours space is poised to open in late October as Meritage, and some of the people who begat Town Talk Diner are set to open a new St. Paul restaurant, too. Isn't that so St. Paul? No time for melodrama, it's just nose-to-the-grindstone survival. Okay, here's the lowdown on the new places.

Meritage (rhymes with heritage) is the new spot by chef Russell Klein and his wife Desta Maree Klein (410 St. Peter Street, St. Paul; meritage-stpaul.com). Klein came to Minnesota as a sort of 9/11 refugee, after the restaurant where he was cooking at the time, David Bouley's Danube, closed for several months, as it was close to Ground Zero. Klein spent several months volunteering as a cook for rescue workers, putting the skills he had learned in some of New York's best-regarded restaurants, including La Caravelle, Picholine, and the JUdson Grill, to good work.

Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, long-term volunteer work was found to be incompatible with the hopes and dreams of his landlord, and Klein left his native New York to take over the kitchen at W.A. Frost. He had been planning a new spot with his new wife, a longtime banquet manager for D'Amico Catering, when, as he puts it, "I was unceremoniously dumped from Frost when they realized they could replace me with my sous chef for half the money." Well, once again, Klein's misfortune is our gain: He has now signed a lease for the former Au Rebours space, and plans to open sometime this month.

"We're not going to change too much about the space," Klein told me. "We had our wedding reception here, we love it, so why would we mess with it? Although, when I say that, I realize that one of my biggest fears is that people are going to say it's just Au Rebours with different owners. We are going to accent the brasserie aspect of the space—we found some 12-foot-wide Parisian mirrors at Architectural Antiques that we think will really highlight the decor, not change it."

When I heard "brasserie," I asked in if he'd have a raw bar and sautéed calf's livers, as those are two things I always think of when I want to know whether people mean brasserie, or they just mean a place with burgers and fries with a French name. No raw bar, he told me, they don't have room, but otherwise, it will really be French.

"Somehow French has become a four-letter word in this town," said Klein, "but more and more I'm realizing, I'm not afraid to say it: We're going to be a French restaurant, with seasonal cooking." Expect a raft of little $3 amusements with which to start the meal, such as oxtail strudel. At lunch there will be a range of sandwiches priced under $10, as well as entrees in the $12 to $15 range. And at dinner, Klein plans entrees such as bouillabaisse, seule meunière, blanquette de veau, pike quenelles, and coq au vin, all priced between $18 and $25.

"Of course, we'll have a hamburger, too. We're in downtown St. Paul and we've got to be realistic," says Klein. "We hope to appeal to the meat-and-potatoes people, and the more adventurous ones as well. I also am thinking of serving some of the foods that touch on the heritage I grew up with: chicken soup with matzo balls, potato kugel, that sort of thing. I always hear Italian chefs talking about serving the food their grandmother made them, and I'm not going to do exactly that because my grandmother was a terrible cook, but that sort of food touches a place in my heart, and I think there's some sort of place for it."

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