Meritage: superb brasserie dining
410 Saint Peter St., St. Paul
651.222.5670 • www.meritage-stpaul.com
entrees $18-$32; appetizers $3-$16
For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what that noise was. Dining at Meritage one evening, I would catch it, periodically, above the dining room din: a rumbling clatter that sounded like a steam locomotive, its cars full of dishware, pulling into a faraway station. Was it the custodian, with his thick, jangling key ring, rolling a mop bucket through the hallway? The dishwasher dropping a silverware rack? Or the chef, binding and gagging a food critic and stuffing her into the closet?
And then I saw it, being steered by one of the well-pressed waiters, its tiny wheels clickity-clacking across the tile floor, port glasses clanging together. "Check it out," I said, interrupting my girlfriends' discussion of our waiter's resemblance to Val Kilmer, "this place has a cheese cart."
A proper cheese cart—a little, wheelable table on which to display a selection of cheeses—is a rarefied thing. So far as I know, Meritage's is the only one in the Twin Cities. I suppose chefs worry that such things are too snooty for value-driven diners, but I don't think so at all. The cheese cart's formality wasn't pretentious but endearing, like high school boys dressed up for prom. I took it as a sign: Fine dining had returned to downtown St. Paul.
And for that we can thank chef Russell Klein, who, with his wife, Desta, opened Meritage (rhymes with heritage, not découpage—it's the name of an American wine made in the Bordeaux tradition, much like the restaurant's cooking). Klein is well-trained in French classics, having cooked at several fine-dining establishments in New York, including David Bouley's Michelin-starred Danube, and the French legend La Caravelle, before coming to Minnesota six years ago to run the kitchen at the venerable W.A. Frost in St. Paul. He met Desta, a banquet captain, at Frost, and after embarking on a "stereotypical chef-server relationship," the two started dreaming of opening a restaurant where he might oversee the kitchen and she the front of the house. The Kleins had long loved the À Rebours space in the historic Hamm Building—in fact, it was the site of their 2007 wedding reception. So when that restaurant closed in the fall, they quickly snapped up the lease.
The dining room is as beautiful as ever, from its mural-sized windows and soaring ceiling down to the mahogany tabletops and neatly folded napkins. Antique details, such as a hanging clock and a giant mirror that fills an entire wall, might inspire diners to drop in at the vintage Heimie's Haberdashery next door for pre-dinner wardrobing. Tree lights twinkle through the windows, and French music—I caught the theme from Amelie—plays on the stereo. And if more than a few pedestrians would ever pass by, you could almost imagine yourself in Paris.
There's now officially one restaurant in downtown St. Paul that could fit right into a world-class food city. The rest of the neighborhood mainstays—Pazzaluna, Kincaid's, St. Paul Grill—pull off the straightforward upscale thing just fine, but they're more suited to accommodating a group of picky eaters than to impressing gourmands. Klein's menu, a mix of French classics and seasonally inspired dishes, puts Meritage in a league of its own.
Start with the $3 amusements, which concentrate the impact of an entree into a tiny, two-bite snack. I tried the bit of beef strudel, a mini raw-tuna taco, and an intriguing flan-like mushroom ganache, which tasted almost like a dessert with its sweet hints of garam masala. I was tempted to order a bunch of them and call it a meal, as if I were eight years old and had invited my dolls for a tea party.
The two soups on the Meritage menu are simple but stellar. When you order the chicken matzo, the bowl arrives containing two plump dumplings, over which the server pours a pitcher of hot chicken broth that's speckled with bits of carrot and dill. Next time I catch a cold, you'll find me at Meritage, with my face bent over a bowl, breathing in its aromatic, heady steam. Either that or slurping French onion soup from an elegant ceramic tureen. Roasted beef bones and caramelized onions give the broth its singular depth, and the hunks of spongy bread and globs of molten Emmentaler and Gruyère tend to induce spoon battles if you happen to be sharing—in the future you won't.
I'd skip the escargot on the appetizer list (marinated in a port-wine sauce, they had a nice, earthy flavor, but the overall effect was rather blah) in favor of the roasted beet salad or the ricotta gnocchi—buttery dough bits served with walnut-arugula pesto. The app list's must-order, though, is the rabbit schnitzel. Slow-cooked, shredded rabbit meat is pattied and fried to a caramelized crisp, almost like a crab cake. It's then paired with a toddler-sized fried quail egg, sweet-and-sour squash, and a puff of frisée to cut the richness. It's like state-fair fried food with a doctorate degree. After I ate it, I imagined everything I wanted to eat in Klein's schnitzel style: pulled pork, duck confit, breakfast cereal.
Klein's entrée list covers the bistro basics—cassoulet, roast chicken, steak frites—but also allows for creativity. A portion of roasted striped bass, for example, is served on a bed of cauliflower and rock shrimp, with a subtle sauce of lobster, scotch, and harissa. The roasted quail special is a pilgrims-meet-Food Network affair: The tiny bird is stuffed with chestnut meat and paired with cabbage, apples, and foie gras foam.
My two favorite entrées were the dishes made with local duck and venison. Klein's choice to serve Wild Acres ducks, the gold standard in Midwest game birds, typifies his cooking philosophy. "Half of cooking is shopping," he says. "You buy really good ingredients and try not to get in the way." He sears the breast and uses the rest of the meat to make sausage (and the fat for confit, the carcasses for stock, the livers for mousse—Klein says he uses "everything but the quack"). After pairing the meat with braised red cabbage and tiny, buttery spaetzle, the dish becomes something both rustic and luxurious, as if Grandma had been asked to cook for Austrian royalty. Klein's venison preparation reminded me of a Dickensian Christmas feast condensed to a plate. The loin is breaded in ground trumpet mushroom, which gives it the funny appearance of beard scruff but builds on its earthy flavor, then cooked so it's blush pink in the middle. The meat is then balanced by a mulled-wine poached pear that's perched jauntily atop a potato-and-butternut-squash gratin.
Meritage also serves weekend brunch and weekday lunch, where meals tend to be simpler: omelet du jour, croque madame, or grilled shrimp niçoise salad. (I was impressed with a Brie, roasted pear, and arugula tartine, and potato-crusted mahi, but not a fishy batch of mussels.) The restaurant's slick, knowledgeable staff seem like they've been working together much longer than they have, and they help create a seamless sense of hospitality from the moment the dapper French host greets you at the door until you polish off your dessert.
Speaking of which, the restaurant's dessert list is really coming together after the Kleins hired Teresa Kohlhoff as the new pastry queen. Kohlhoff offers dainty desserts—a demitasse of espresso mousse, Nutella sandwiched between two matzo—and sharables. The light, foamy, hazelnut mousse was absolutely fantastic, as was the bittersweet chocolate torte, which resembled the center of a truffle in rectangular shape, and was served with blood orange curd and candied orange peel. I could have eaten the entire block, though if I did I won't admit it.
Or, of course, you can finish your meal with wares from the cheese cart. When I visited, the server gave such a thorough explanation of the Pleasant Ridge Reserve you'd think he'd milked the cows himself. He paired my selection with dried cherries and marcona almonds and poured an Austrian rosé to match. I grazed so happily that I hardly noticed as the sound of fine dining rattled and clattered away.
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