Beyond the Obvious

At Russell Klein’s Meritage: Scallops with toasted hazelnuts, an oyster-Bloody Mary shooter, braised-beef strudel, and a tiny tuna tartare taco.

You may have heard of Russell Klein, but you might not know his new restaurant in downtown St. Paul, Meritage. Klein dramatically raised the culinary standards at W.A. Frost, and now that he and his wife and partner, Desta, can set new standards at their own restaurant, it’s probably just a matter of time before Meritage enters the charmed circle. For now, your chances of booking a table for a romantic weekend dinner, or even Valentine’s Day, are pretty good.

Klein got his formal training at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, so when it comes to cassoulet and coq au vin, he knows his stuff. But he’s not taking any of that stuff too seriously, either. He subverts the idea of a bistro, for example, by serving up matzo ball soup and a classic American burger with fries alongside the foie gras and cassoulet, and by offering a matzo and Nutella sandwich for dessert.

The cuisine is first-rate. Vegetarian entrées often seem like an afterthought, but Klein’s “composition of autumn vegetables” was an inspired combination: small pumpkin pancakes accompanied by a sunchoke frittata of caramelized brussels sprouts and carrots. Other winners included the entrée of four large scallops topped with toasted hazelnuts, accompanied by kale, squash, white beans, and a brown butter sauce; the wild-caught striped bass, served over cauliflower and rock shrimp in a lobster sauce; and the Wild Acres duck breast, with duck sausage, red cabbage, and spaetzle.

Meritage looks about the same as it did when it was A Rebours, and it still presents itself as a French bistro, but with a more playful spirit. Our server on both recent visits, Mel, was prompt, attentive, and knowledgeable, and at the same time quirky and funny. The dapper maître d’, Ross—full title, maître de fromage—once served as Mariah Carey’s private butler, and brings to his role just the right air of gravitas.

Cave Vin has been open for a few years—long enough to be eclipsed by a newer, trendier set of highly recommend bistros in south Minneapolis like Café Maude, Café Levain, the Blackbird Café, and Heidi’s. But it’s still a charming spot for a romantic dinner that won’t break the bank. Chef Olmedo Jara comes from Ecuador, but the cooking is classic French bistro fare, done à point.

Best bets from recent visits include a delightful beet and roasted fennel salad with a subtle Dijon vinaigrette; Alaskan king crab gnocchi; and mussels in shallots, white wine, and garlic (with or without frites). A classic steak tartare, topped with a raw egg, and accompanied by chopped onions, capers, and toasted croutons, was an elemental pleasure for carnivores. There is lots more on the menu that I would like to try, ranging from crab cakes and frog legs to a braised lamb shank and cornmeal-crusted sea scallops, so I will be back—probably on a Monday or Tuesday, when bottles of wine are half-price. Or maybe on a Wednesday night, when talented chanteuse Rhonda Laurie sings mellow jazz standards, backed by bass and guitar.

If you guessed that Abbas Shahbazi is an Iranian film director, don’t feel bad—Google has never heard of him, either. He’s the chef at the Atlas Grill, the older sister of Mission American Kitchen. (Full disclosure: My wife and I had our wedding at Atlas, and Abbas has treated us like family ever since. But a lot of regulars seem to experience the same warmth and hospitality.)

The restaurant, in the US Bank Plaza (the former Pillsbury Center), draws a crowd of movers and shakers at lunchtime, but in the evening it’s often pretty empty, unless there’s a private party in the very romantic dining room (which will be open to the public on Valentine’s Day).

Shahbazi’s style is more traditional craftsman than culinary artiste: he makes unfussy yet elegant presentations of dishes ranging from gulf shrimp in a citrus beurre blanc to tenderloin with saffron pistachio butter. The real highlights, though, are the dishes that reflect Shahbazi’s Persian heritage, such as the irresistible roasted eggplant and garlic purée, the fire-roasted meats and seafoods, and the pomegranate-walnut chicken, an adaptation of the Persian classic, fazenjoon. My suggestion: Order a sharing platter of juicy fire-roasted meats or fish (or both), cooked kabob-style over blazing heat, served with saffron rice and grilled vegetables.

While I can’t cover all my favorites in the romantic-and-underrated category, I must at least mention the Grand Café, which offers the quintessential neighborhood bistro experience: candlelight, attentive service, affordable prices, and simple but imaginative cuisine, featuring seasonal foods and local producers.

*Tim McKee (and Josh Thoma) of La Belle Vie and Solera; Vincent Francoual of Vincent – A Restaurant; Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma; Stewart and Heidi Woodman of Heidi’s; Lucia Watson of Lucia’s Restaurant; Doug Flicker of Mission A
merican Kitchen; J.P. Samuelson of jP American Bistro; Lenny Russo of Heartland; and Brenda Langton of Café Brenda and Spoonriver. Tanya Siebenaler is at Sapor; Don Saunders at Fugaise; Scott Pampuch at Corner Table; Mike Phillips at The Craftsman; and J.D. Fratzke, formerly of Muffuletta, is at The Strip Club.

First Course, 5607 Chicago Ave. S.,
Minneapolis; 612-825-6900. Pastas $10–$16; most entrées under $20

Cave Vin,
5555 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-922-0100. Most salads/starters $7.25–$10; most entrées $13–$27

Meritage, 410 St. Peter St., Saint Paul;
651-222-5670; Salads/small courses $6–$14; entrees $16–$29

Atlas Grill,
200 S. Sixth St. Minneapolis; 612-332-4200;
Starters $6–$12; most entrées $14–$22

Grand Café,
3804 Grand Ave. S.,
Minneapolis; 612-822-8260;
Starters $5-$10; entrees $17-$21.






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