Meritage delivers $12-and-under dandies on its lunch menu

To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

Go big or go home. When Russell Klein does something, he does it the right way.

Exhibit A: the oyster bar. In late 2010, Klein--along with his co-owner and wife, Desta--started a massive renovation to build the new Meritage Oyster Bar. Not only was the construction a significant undertaking (they added 40 seats to the 80 they already had in the main dining room), but so was setting up the oyster operation.

Klein toured both the east and west coasts, visiting oyster farms and establishing key partnerships. By purchasing oysters direct and using overnight shipping, "We get product that's incredibly fresh," he says.

For Klein, that's what everything is about: quality. "It's food and product," he says. "But it's also the quality of ambiance and quality of service staff. If people associate us with quality, that--to me--is the best thing we can do."

Thankfully, quality comes in plenty of $12-and-under packages at Meritage, especially on the lunch menu. Which one will be our favorite?

Originally from New York, Klein was a student at the French Culinary Institute and a pupil of the legendary Jacques Pépin. After spending several years as the executive chef at W.A. Frost and Company, Klein opened Meritage in 2007. And last year, he was selected as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Midwest award.

Having trained in France, Klein fashioned Meritage after a traditional brasserie--something a little bigger than the average bistro, yet a bit more casual and lively than the typical Parisian restaurant. He wants his guests to feel comfortable--whether they're en route to a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert or going to a Wild game at the X.

The menu is filled with traditional French favorites, which Klein strives to keep as authentic as possible: "When we do something like a coq au vin or a cassoulet, we really try to honor the classics. We make it from scratch, the right way--which is the long way," he adds with a smile.

Case in point: the French Onion Soup, which is priced at $12 and listed as soupe à l'oignon gratinée avec petite salade. During the four-day process, Klein makes his own beef stock from scratch and patiently waits an entire day for the onions to cook down.

Although the Meritage lineup features standard fare, it also contains modern twists. "I'm French-trained, but I'm an American," Klein explains. "So we do the French classics, but we also do contemporary French dishes."

Among the sea of choices, it's easy to pull out some brilliant $12 options--like the $10.50 Roasted Bone Marrow (which you can also get for a $5 steal in the bar during happy hour). Klein has the bones custom cut, and then they're cleaned and roasted in-house. They're finished under a broiler, sprinkled with some crunchy breadcrumbs and a little sea salt, and then plated with gremolata (chopped preserved lemon and parsley), red wine shallot confit, and toast points.

It's served with a spoon, and Klein advises diners to scoop out the marrow and spread it on toast, like butter. "Every mouthful of marrow is like eating a whole steak, in terms of flavor," he says. The marrow is fatty and creamy. The red wine confit and gremolata adds some nice punch, and the crunchy bread provides a worthy backdrop.

The marrow has been a Meritage mainstay for quite a while, and will continue to be. But these last two items are seasonal--so get them while you can.

The first is the Slow-Cooked Pork Shoulder. Klein starts with whole shoulders, which he bones and butterflies. He pounds them into thin pieces and sprinkles smoked pancetta and herbs on top. Then they're rolled, braised, and sliced into round disks that are later sautéed.

To round out the meal, he adds bacon-glazed Brussels sprouts, a creamy parsnip puree, and small bites of sweet and sour apple. At $12.50, we know this goes a smidge beyond our $12 limit, but if we get a tall instead of a venti latte today, that should cover it.

And finally, our $12 pick. We're going with a new addition to the lunch menu: the Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs for $12, which is actually a remix of a sturgeon entree Klein offers at dinner.

Late last year, Klein decided to overhaul the lunch offering because he felt there were too many differences between the mid-day and evening menus. He said, "Let's cook more like we cook at dinner." So he removed several sandwiches and replaced them with plates that better embodied the nighttime experience.

In the new chicken dish, he offers a fascinating combination of taste and texture. Sweet potatoes appear in two forms--as a smooth puree and tiny rounds, bok choy adds a freshness and crunch, and the soft prunes (which are cooked in port wine and Earl Grey tea) provide deep, rich layers of flavor. Everything is then accented with some pickled mustard seeds and a simple chicken jus.

But the undisputed highlight is the chicken skin. Golden brown and beautifully crispy, it adds a snap to the entire plate. It is truly French food--regardless of classic or contemporary label--at its most fantastic. If quality is the ultimate goal, mission accomplished.

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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410 Saint Peter St.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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