Meritage (St. Paul)

Meritage, Saddle of Lamb
I always tend to think of Meritage as a Twin Cities institution from way back but in fact it only opened around the same time we got here: in 2007. The head chef, Russell Klein, has been around on the scene longer. Though he is not originally from Minnesota (from New York, I believe), he was the executive chef at W.A. Frost, a St. Paul institution that has incubated a lot of Twin Cities kitchen talent. His wife Desta Maree Klein is the other force behind the restaurant—she runs the operations. They’ve won a number of local awards and Chef Klein has been long-listed a couple of times for the Midwest James Beard. It’s a place we’ve always meant to go to but somehow never have. Well, the omission has been fixed now. 

We have eaten the Kleins’ food before though, at the second restaurant they opened a few years ago, Brasserie Zentral, which focused on the food of central Europe. While it was well-received by critics (we enjoyed both our meals there too—see here and here) it was not quite as well supported by diners and closed after a run of less than two years. There were doubtless many reasons for this closure (and restaurants close all the time everywhere) but it’s hard not to think that in today’s fine dining scene the kind of thing the Kleins do—solid, classic food executed at a high level without any bells and whistles attached—might be a less fashionable proposition. Be that as it may, Meritage, very much an old-school French bistro, is an institution now and very successful indeed. And our recent meal there suggests this success is very well-deserved.

Our reservation was for 8.30 on a Saturday night. The restaurant was bustling when we arrived but when we left closer to 11 we were pretty much the only ones there. But this is par for the course in the Twin Cities. There were four of us eating and we did a fair bit of damage (and I got a good taste of everything).

What We Ate (a slideshow follows)

While the menu was reasonably detailed (and I fortunately grabbed a copy of the menu from their website before some of the things we ate went off it) there were a couple of specifics I didn’t catch at service and didn’t ask about then as I didn’t want to intrude more on my companions’ meal than I was already doing with my camera-related tomfoolery. I’d figured I’d email the restaurant later with questions. Unfortunately, I did not get a response (presumably they’re too busy to deal with idiot bloggers) and so do not have all the details (what kind of white beans? what blue cheese? etc.) Update: I heard from Chef Klein right after I posted this review and have added the information (more details on some dishes as well some more general information) to the relevant areas below.

  • They are known for their shellfish bar and so we started with a dozen oysters; one each of three varieties for each of us: Wellfleet, Ichabod and Hama Hama. All were good but the Hama Hama were exceptional—perfect examples of the variety, meaty and nicely balanced between sweet and briny.

First Course

  • Two members of the party started with the Escargot Bourguignon. A classic preparation with garlic-parsley butter, this was very good but with six snails and a lot of butter was rather filling as a first course.
  • Another member of the party got the Marinated Grilled Quail. This was rather excellent (and I apologize for the very poor photograph of it below). Served on a white bean puree with greens and an olive-tomato vinaigrette, it was very nice balance of flavours and textures and techniques.
  • I got the Marinated Leek Salad. This was also very good indeed. Frisee with blue cheese and walnuts and a mustard vinaigrette over wilted leeks. The cheese is Fourme d’Ambert, from the Auvergne region, a little milder than the better-known blues.

Second Course

  • Cassoulet in the Style of Toulouse. A classic dish, classically done: solid comfort food and it pleased the person who ate most of it. (And apologies for the awful picture of this one as well). As per the restaurant they use the tarbais bean, the original bean for cassoulet, very rarely seen in the United States. (The cassoulet is, alas, already off the menu but will be back in the Fall.)
  • Atlantic Skate Wing Grenobloise. This was mine and it was excellent (and swimming in brown butter). Frankly, it wasn’t a million miles away from the trout meuniere at our last meal at Brasserie Zentral but given how much we enjoyed that that’s not a bad thing.
  • Roasted Minnesota Magret Duck Breast. Served with “Rhubarb-Black Pepper Clafoutis, Caramelized Salsify, Asparagus, Duck Jus”. The clafoutis was an interesting touch but too sweet (said the person whose main this was, and I tended to agree). The duck, however, was perfectly cooked—right at the rare edge of medium-rare.
  • Stuffed Saddle of Lamb. This was a ringer for the similar dish we’d gotten at our first dinner at Brasserie Zentral—as to whether it had gone to that menu from Meritage or came back to Meritage from Brasserie Zentral, I’m not sure. Anyway, it was very good. The lamb perfectly cooked and stuffed with ground lamb, pork and mushroom duxelle. It was served with fries made from pureed chickpeas, I think. This is on the menu as the plat du jour for Saturdays and there’s no detail offered there.

Dessert

  • Two of us shared the Gâteau L’Opéra. It was quite good with the almond crumble and the coffee ice cream (from Izzy’s, I think) but the blood orange coulis was a little bubblegummy.
  • One of us got a few of the small bite desserts: the Macaron du Jour, the Pâté de Fruits with Sable Cookie and the Salted Caramel Ice Cream Pop.

And there were a number of drinks: two glasses of sparkling wine and two cocktails to start; a bottle of red (a very good Clos Costelot 2010, Saint-Emilion at about 2.5x retail); a glass of calvados and a glass of armagnac; and coffee. All of this food and drink and tax and tip came to about $120/head. This is not cheap, and suffers from the curse of Joe Beef, but you could certainly get out for far less (the oysters and drinks alone would have been roughly $40 per head before tax/tip). It also bears noting that they are not skimping on the ingredients: from Tarbais beans in the cassoulet to the Fourme d’Ambert in the leek salad they’re not cutting any corners going with more easily found ingredients. And though our server probably didn’t know quite as much about calvados as he might have been trying to imply, service on the whole was very good.

The menu, as I noted above, has already changed a bit since our meal (just under two weeks ago). The restaurant informs that changes to the menu happen every 6-8 weeks, with more changes in the spring and summer as they keep up with the greater abundance of produce. I am also told that there are only a few dishes—the crispy half-chicken, the moules frites and the hanger steak among them—that are always on every iteration of the menu. It’s good to know then that we’ll have even more options on our next visit.

In sum, I would recommend dinner at Meritage without hesitations. One of the few remaining outposts, seemingly, of adult food in the Twin Cities: they won’t shoot your dinner out of a nerf gun at you or otherwise make a spectacle of it or themselves but you will enjoy what you eat and you’ll enjoy the restaurant: they serve classic food but it’s anything but a stuffy atmosphere. It may have taken us a while to get here but we’ll be back soon.

 

3 thoughts on “Meritage (St. Paul)

  1. MAO: Glad you were able to get to Meritage. We’ve also enjoyed it more times then I remember, the brunches we’ve enjoyed have always been perfect. Their lunches, delicious, and a real bargain. Dinner was always delicious too, although it’s been awhile.

    We never really got a good feeling after eating at Zentral, but have always come away happy from Meritage, Maybe it was the type of food at Zentral that didn’t spark us; and Zentral’s ambiance seemed a little too stuffy, compared to the almost boisterous atmosphere at Meritage.

    And, after factoring in the egregiously high downtown Minneapolis restaurant and liquor tax (which even Klein has publicly proclaimed as part Zentral’s demise), dining out is a bargain in St. Paul.

    PS: watch out for the snails, I became terribly ill after getting a bad one at St. Genevieve last week.

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