The Big Questions come out in times of tragedy: Why are we here? What are we doing? Are we doomed to keep doing it? In Minnesota, restaurant tragedies have been legion lately. When I close my eyes at night, I can picture a mass grave with a big granite fork over it, commemorating the peacefully slumbering Five, À Rebours, Auriga, Margaux, Willie’s Wine Bar, Fhima’s, Zander Café, Temple, et al.
At this point, there is hardly anyone in a Minnesota restaurant kitchen who doesn’t know someone who has either expected a paycheck but found a locked door; put a cook on extra shifts to keep them from losing their house; had a farmer come to them desperate to unload bespoke pheasants that no longer had a chef to go to; or otherwise looked into the abyss. And so the big questions echo through the town: Are chefs essentially poets, called by a muse and a higher art—artists we visit to be inspired and touched? Or are restaurants actually just high-class convenience stores, offering up the culinary motor oil, coffee, and chips that people need on the road of life—and sure to stumble if they presume to do more?
For Russell Klein, chef and owner of Meritage (rhymes with heritage), the bistro that took over the former À Rebours spot, these big questions have loomed particularly large. Klein, a New York native, already survived one apocalypse: The restaurant he was cooking at on 9/11, David Bouley’s upscale Austrian restaurant Danube, was a short walk from Ground Zero. When the Towers came down, Klein’s restaurant closed and he volunteered in the ad-hoc kitchens assembled to feed rescue and recovery workers. A few months later, Klein’s landlord informed him that good works might be the road to heaven, but they were also the road to eviction. So Klein relocated and took a job at W. A. Frost & Company in St. Paul. (Shortly after he moved here, I asked Klein how things were going at Frost: “Well, it’s a learning curve,” he told me. “We didn’t have fried fish sandwiches at Danube.”) However, like anyone with any sense, Klein soon fell in love with St. Paul, married a girl who also loved St. Paul, and the two made the last city of the East their home.
So you see, the Big Questions had been sitting with Klein for a long, long time when he decided to open his own restaurant. His Big Answer? Return to the absolute basics, the fundamentals, the culinary bible: New York–French—Paris via New York City.
What’s so fundamental about Paris and New York? Well, turn-of-the-century Paris was the crucible that modern restaurant culture was forged in. We owe everything—menus, appetizers, wine pairing, the kitchen hierarchy of hot-and-cold stations, the works—to that time and place. And New York City? Well, it’s hard to put in perspective the importance of New York City’s French restaurants like Le Pavillon, Lutéce, and La Caravelle. They were literally the alpha and omega of American fine dining in the years between World War II and Watergate. Even the people who democratized ambitious cooking in the United States—people like Julia Child and Craig Claiborne—used those great New York–French restaurants as their reference point.
Klein’s new Meritage is Minnesota’s closest connection to that world. Klein cooked at the now-defunct La Caravelle for two years (the La Caravelle team was trained by the Le Pavillon team). To understand what this means, try the Billi Bi soup from Meritage’s amusements menu: It’s a classic bit of high-French cooking involving lots of saffron, mussels, white wine, infusing, cleaning, straining, and cream. The bright yellow soup that emerges tastes like nothing so much as a glimmering spoonful of sunbeam, ocean, and ice cream. It’s rich, captivating, and perfect.
Klein has been told the version of Billi Bi he learned descended from Maxim’s of Paris, and whether that’s true or not, the soup made me realize one thing: When it comes to surgeons, hairdressers, and plumbers, we always pay more for the work of the person who has trained with masters and has 20,000 hours of practice under their belt. But not in restaurants. In restaurants we pay $8 for the salad and $18 for the roast chicken whether it’s cooked by a master chef, or the temp who showed up to cover the shift at the mall chain.
Meritage’s $18 roast chicken, by the way, is fantastic: The skin is crisp as bacon, the meat so tender it might as well have been poached, the accompanying gold-and-bronze-hued roast potatoes and garlic so rich and country-good you’ll have a hard time venturing into the rest of the menu once you try them. You should venture, though. A Wild Acres duck breast achieves that state local cooks so often try for but so seldom achieve: rare as berries, crisp as potato chips, tender as an omelet. The spicy duck sausage, braised red cabbage, and delicate spaetzle that came with the duck on one of my visits overwhelmed me with the sort of elegiac melancholy that too much great cooking can inspire. I can never finish you, I thought, looking sadly down at my plump little commas of spaetzle—and it breaks my heart.
On the other hand, if you don’t know or care about the illustrious history of New-York French food, Meritage succeeds as a contemporary restaurant with no particular French accent (the buttery rabbit-schnitzel pancakes with sweet-and-sour squash, for example, are a dream); and as a business lunch, the niçoise salad is the best that I know of, despite the fact that it strays from the classic formula and pairs lemon-marinated grilled shrimp with tender haricots vert and the most harmonious, mellow, oil-cured olives. It also succeeds as a place for a glass of wine and beautiful, twisty, hand-cut French fries before a show at the Fitzgerald. The wine list, mostly French, rivals the best French wine list in Minneapolis (that would be the one at Vincent), and is similarly food and wallet-friendly, geographically diverse, and studded with enough obscure-but-delicious options to keep anyone who cares about wine in a state of excitement and intrigue. The cheese cart that is brought to the table after the main courses offers a small handful of options, all, in my experience, in beautiful condition: A Robiola Tre Latte—a young, fresh three-milk cheese from Piedmont, Italy—was served at just the moment when it was young and fresh enough to have an inner line of chalky tang, but just old enough to be turning creamy and sweet.
Pastry chef Teresa Kohlhoff waltzes gracefully in this classically French idiom. I particularly loved her intense espresso mousse from the restaurant’s dessert menu, and her buttery apple-frangipane tart with salty caramel ice cream. Service at Meritage was efficient, knowledgeable, and attentive enough to keep things humming smoothly—but distant enough to allow for privacy, which is how I like it.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the best thing about Meritage: You don’t need to know a thing about New York–French food to appreciate it. For most diners, it simply feels right. Is that why the place is nearly booked solid for the Republican National Convention? I can’t imagine it’s the deep New York–French roots. Or it might just be that some Republicans think as I do: Many of the most pleasant people in the world are those who have answered life’s big questions to their own satisfaction, and don’t need to tell you about it.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.