If Meritage gave us an updated taste of Paris in the 1920s, Brasserie Zentral, the newest from Russell and Desta Klein, gives us a modern twist on Budapest in the 1880s. We think of brasseries — the white linen, all-day, full-service European analogue to our loose, Americanized gastropub — as being an important part of France's dining culture. But the Kleins are onto the broader range of brasseries across Central and into Eastern Europe. Anyone who has explored this region, once known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, either in person or on a plate, knows how rich with tradition, full of delicious dumplings and doughs, and utterly fanatic about animal fat this area and its people are. Pair that culinary inspiration with a multi-award-winning executive chef, a dynamic bar program featuring a number of exclusive types of schnapps made by 45th Parallel, a storied dessert chef who is as agile with sweets as she is with savories, and an obvious commitment to formality in the dining room and technique in the kitchen, and you have a patent-worthy formula for a successful restaurant.
Even with all of that, location can make or break a restaurant, and downtown Minneapolis, in the Soo Line Building that's still under construction, is not an easy-peasy spot to launch a new venture. But if anyone can pull off luxury meat and potatoes in a way that's far more cultured and interesting than say, Manny's or Kincaid's, it's the Kleins. For years they've been running Meritage, easily the best French restaurant in the Twin Cities, and from the fabulous crepe stand to the much-anticipated yearly Oysterfest, they've found smart ways to serve their style of food through more informal channels.
Brasserie Zentral upholds the Kleins' ethos of accessible Old World elegance. The menu is divided into small plates, handmade pastas, mains, and then a whole swath dedicated to locally and ethically raised foie gras from Au Bon Canard in Caledonia. At Zentral you can start your meal with a raw tuna and foie gras mousse strata — layers of silky tuna, unctuous foie, and wispy phyllo pastry — then move on to seared foie, the runaway favorite recommendation from the staff, and finish off with a trio of foie for dessert. The sampler plate includes a wee slice of foie torchon with brandied cherries, a tiny dish of foie creme brulee with finely diced strawberry, and the most delicious sweet-and-meat experience we have ever had in the form of a perfectly crisp then chewy macaron with foie mousse sandwiched in the middle. Pastry chef Niki Francioli, formerly of Sea Change, is in fine form here, making classics like Black Forest Cake wholly exciting again and having a lot of fun with isolating and pairing up complementary textures. The foie trio was hard to pass up for dessert, but if you do, order the divine pistachio semifreddo.
At this particular time of year, asparagus — both the skinny, tender green spears and the massive, otherworldly white variety — are featured almost as much as the foie gras, popping up in super-rich appetizers like the French-style soft-scrambled eggs, dotted with black paddlefish roe and accompanied by stalks of butter-braised white asparagus. The only thing that could make this little dish more ladies-who-brunch fancy is a little champagne, so they put that in the creamy sauce for a bit of welcome acidity. Asparagus also plays a supporting role as a thick, vegetal puree in main dishes, like the unbelievably mild, tender, and not-at-all rabbit-like loin of rabbit with mini house-made weisswurst sausages, top-on young carrots, and black pepper emulsion. The description makes it sound like you'll be getting a heavy, hearty, gamey dish. Instead, this is meadow-skipping spring on a plate.
Another tribute to the season that made its mark was the lamb saddle, an uncommon cut that was cooked to rosy rare perfection, allowing the grassy flavors of the meat to shine through. Braised gem lettuce provided the bed for the second-best part of the dish: Shupfknudel. These long, finger-like dumplings were so soft and creamy, we would have loved more on the plate. Lest you think that Zentral is all about bigger, bolder, more robust proteins, there are a number of lighter fish dishes. The phyllo-wrapped halibut strudel seemed to be going out to every other diner who ordered, possibly because of the precious morel mushrooms in the dish, but the consensus at our table was that the smorgas-ready paprika-cured mackerel was the winning fish: rich, but still refreshing with a salad of kohlrabi, lime, mint, and a smear of caraway-spiked cream.
Brasserie is sectioned off to provide different experiences for different diners. There are romantic banquette booths for couples and seats that offer a front-row view of the exhibition kitchen, a great place to have a chef's table-type experience or a casual meal with a friend. The high-top tables in the bar area are made for people-watching and sipping an East Meets West, Zentral's take on a Moscow Mule, or the Lawnmower, a beer cocktail with a citrusy rye twist. If you're looking for a budget-friendly way to get a taste of Zentral, the pastas and dumplings section of the menu may be your best bet. Go for a full or half portion of our favorites: the lovely, eggy spinach tagliatelle with crab, coated in uni butter and sprinkled with crushed pretzels for contrasting texture, or the semolina dumplings, a take on Klein's famous chicken and matzo ball soup, with a dark green herb consomme and sweet-tart braised cabbage.
The only ding in the kitchen's armor was a tendency to over-season, or more specifically, to over-salt. There is and should never be anything wrong with a $40 cut of beef, but with the crust of seasoning on the meat, the (intentionally) broken sauce with a gherkin base, and the pile of crispy, super-thin onion rings, this dish had a salt level that was a notch too high. We loved the concept of the spare and elegant nettle tortelloni stuffed with fresh cheese, but the additional pecorino on top and the brown butter sauce pushed this dish into too-salty territory, too.
The really great news is that Brasserie Zentral is just the cornerstone of an even more ambitious series of projects from the Kleins, all housed within the Soo Line building. A separate wine, cheese, and dessert bar called Foreign Legion is already under construction just across the splashy, statement-making lobby and is slated to open in early fall. On the second level they'll be doing a quick-service concept called Cafe Zentral for skyway-walkers and fans of grownup grilled-cheese sandwiches and sausages made by Mike Phillips. And finally, the busy pair are also planning a wine and spirits shop. So if you have an unforgettable Alsatian riesling with your speck-wrapped trout at Brasserie for dinner, you'll be able to swing by this yet-to-be-named retail space and pick up a bottle to take home.
What the Cossetta's one-stop multipurpose expansion did for the West Seventh shopper in need of all things Italian, this corner Zentral mini-complex will do for downtown commuters, people in search of a little Old World romance, and the very lucky residents of the Soo Line Building who will barely have to venture outside their doorstep for a taste of Europe's finest.