Looking back, it turns out that 2002 was a pivotal moment in the Twin Cities dining scene.

That’s the year that New York City chef Russell Klein relocated to St. Paul and began to make his outsized impact on the region’s dining culture (quietly, like the good adopted Minnesotan he was about to become). First came his thoughtful revamp of venerable W.A. Frost & Co. Then he and his wife, Desta Klein, lit up downtown St. Paul with Meritage in 2007; their nobody-does-it-better oyster bar followed three years later.

In April, the couple launched their most ambitious project, a gloriously rendered and genuinely novel homage to the flavors and customs of Austria and Hungary they’ve dubbed Brasserie Zentral.

This marriage of rigorous scholarship, zealous passion and smooth professionalism is unlike any other local restaurant, starting with Russell Klein’s all-in commitment to celebrating a side of European gastroculture that gets little play here in the Midwest.

The restaurant is frequently a personal expression of Klein’s heritage, filtered through the prism of his contemporary sensibilities, with some dishes culled directly from family tradition. The holishkes, for instance, are a loving shout-out to his great-grandmother. Of course, in Klein’s hands they’re nothing short of a triumph, with the vivid green of savoy cabbage — stuffed with a winning assortment of vegetables and kamut, a chewy ancient grain with a nuttiness not unlike that of wild rice — striking a vivid contrast against a pool of sweet-sour tomato sauce. I’m hard-pressed to name a more impressive vegetarian dish being served anywhere within the state’s borders.

Don’t allow language to become a barrier. Pork cheeks — the meaty center nugget, not the whole jowl — braised in a hoppy spring beer and finished with celery-like lovage and a veal stock reduction are sublime. And better to say “kavalierspitz” than “boiled beef shoulder,” because if the sound of the latter is off-putting, you’ll be missing out on a pot roast-like revelation enriched with bone marrow.

The universality of rabbit, duck, lamb and beef are all represented in the main courses, each one quietly but self-assuredly following the Austro-Hungarian party line. Paprika, that bedrock of Hungarian cuisine, makes appearances up and down the menu. Klein’s crew produces its own in the restaurant’s vast basement workrooms, dehydrating and grinding hundreds of pounds of red bell peppers from Riverbend Farm in Delano, and it’s a revelation: pungent, intensely fragrant and colorful. Its most memorable appearance is as a crust around velvety cured mackerel, the epitome of understated luxury and a must-order.

The skill behind the pastas — tagliatelle with crab, pappardelle with a dreamy duck Bolognese, pillowy gnocchi with a hearty lamb ragout, all thoughtfully sold in two sizes/prices — is evident at first taste (and first peek). The pinnacle? Tender, quark-infused spaetzle with succulent rabbit, its comfort-food opulence teased by pops of palate-cleansing peas.

Salads (an interplay of sweet beets and thinly sliced veal) and soups (a trout chowder so attuned to color and composition it could have been pulled from a Joan Mitchell retrospective) are treated with the same jeweler’s precision.

The recent addition of a few shared plate-style starters has inserted a bit of informality into an otherwise structured setup. Now grazers can whet their appetites with sturdy pierogi, perfumed with bacon and sweet cabbage, or a platter that shows off the kitchen’s superb sausage-making skills.

Klein, an unabashed foie gras enthusiast, approaches the hyper-fatty liver with a seal of ownership, devoting a section of his menu — its apotheosis, really — to the output from Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, Minn. “We’re blessed to have access to the best foie gras in the United States, hands-down,” he said. “It’s humanely raised, and I’m proud to stand behind it.” And use it, prodigiously. There’s a smart intro-to-foie gras sampler, and a stunner that flaunts the differences — and oddly appealing connection — between foie gras and raw tuna.

But the two that really resonate are the just-seared slab, its voluptuousness countered by the clean, tart bite of apples. Then there’s the terrine, a lesson in suppleness capped with rendered foie gras fat and glazed in a play on the classic Sauternes aspic, only using its Hungarian equivalent. It is a history-in-the-making dish.

Although I wanted nothing more than to test-drive the whole-roasted lobe, served with the kitchen’s exceptional fruit preserves and intended for groups of eight to 10, a charge of $200 probably would have sent me straight into the newspaper’s boo-boo room for a stern chat on expense-account prudence. Still, Klein sells one of these gleeful exercises in excess every few weeks. “It’s a fun showpiece,” he said. Indeed.

Finding value

While much of Zentral’s gold-card price structure reflects its connoisseur’s bonafides, there are (relative) bargains to be had. Even where foie gras is concerned.

Consider the roast chicken dinner for two, one of three such meals-for-a-couple options. The juicy meat — the result of meticulous brining and air-drying — is sheltered beneath skin that’s shellacked to the gleaming, mouthwatering color of dark caramel. Just beneath lies a thin layer of crumbled brioche seasoned with foie gras, a ridiculously rich and altogether delightful taste sensation, one that causes all future Thanksgiving stuffings to suffer in comparison.

Like so much about Zentral, there’s more. This poultry triumph is crowned with a shimmering brandy-cream sauce that improves everything it touches, and the whole bird is served with roasted-to-perfection vegetables and sensational kasha varnishkes, toothy farfalle pasta tossed with dainty buckwheat groats. Total cost is $52 for two, although on Sunday it’s $55, when the Kleins toss in a bottle of wine and create the very definition of a fine-dining steal.

It’s hard to find a downside. Sure, the kitchen’s pace can be vexingly languid over the noon hour. A full house can make for challenging conversation, acoustics-wise. It sometimes feels as if salty is the kitchen’s default seasoning mode.

The menu’s propensity to read “heavy” — a mostly unfair supposition, by the way, given the kitchen’s deft touch, but not entirely unfounded — can make it a tough sell for those who see the word schnitzel and run, screaming, for the nearest Weight Watchers meeting (but don’t; both the turkey and veal versions are case studies in frying prowess).

But the minor details that frequently trip up other, lesser restaurants, are handled with authority. For starters, there’s a potato salad to end all potato salads. Sublime, caraway-flecked sauerkraut will make a convert out of even the most skeptical of cabbage-haters. A fetish-like focus on mustards pays off, again and again.

Oh, and the pretzels! They’re perfect, with just the right chewy pull and salty afterbite. They pop up everywhere, starting with a hospitable little greeting from the kitchen: a crock of quark (the soft, unaged white cheese is another Zentral staple) infused with cornichons, capers and, of course, paprika, served with crunchily addicting pretzel toasts.

Looking good

Although opening pastry chef Niki Francioli has left Zentral for La Belle Vie, her refined imprint remains on a number of dishes that mirror Klein’s mission of presenting Old World flavors in New World contexts.

Even when Klein steps away from his disciplined on-the-Danube orthodoxy, remarkable things happen. A burger feels like a sellout, but Klein, in realist mode, tosses a bone to his noon-hour constituency (it now has a berth on the evening menu, too), and it is a knockout, scented with paprika, topped with raclette and served on — what else? — a pretzel bun.

The vast majority of the Soo Line building’s original 1915 interiors are long gone, creating a blank-canvas opportunity for Shea Inc. of Minneapolis to start from scratch. The handsomely subdued results are an evocation of the grand brasserie traditions of Vienna and Budapest rather than an all-out imitation, and that’s a good thing; after all, this is downtown Minneapolis, not Epcot.

A low-ish ceiling dictated a fairly intimate setting, memorable for its dark hardwoods and pale ochre walls. Wallpapers and upholstery in understated golds and clarets contribute an understated elegance without veering into overt formality.

Plenty of windows pull the city inside, making the restaurant quite the perch for watching the construction surrounding this once-drowsy downtown intersection. Yes, the corner of 5th and Marquette is roaring back to life, and it’s a thrill to see Russell Klein in the thick of it, right where he belongs.

 

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