First things first. “We’re not doing a second Meritage,” said Russell Klein. “There’s only one Meritage, and it’s in downtown St. Paul, and that’s where it belongs.”
Instead, the couple – he cooks, she’s the face up front -- plan to tap into Russell’s Austro-Hungarian heritage with a Central European-flavored restaurant they’re calling Brasserie Zentral. Yes, that’s ‘Central,’ with a Z.
“How’s your German?” asked Russell with a laugh. “I love brasseries. They’re sophisticated without being stuffy. That’s what we do, and that’s what the space calls for.”
The site is the ground floor of the historic Soo Line Building at 501 Marquette Av. The 19-story building (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) is undergoing a conversion from offices into luxury apartments by developer Village Green Cos. It opened 99 years ago as the First National Bank (now US Bank) Building and it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2008.
“It’s older than the Hamm Building,” Klein said, referring to the 1920 terra cotta-clad landmark that has been home to Meritage for the past six years. “We have a thing for historic buildings.”
The restaurant’s menu will concentrate on what Klein calls “Continental cuisine with a real focus on central Europe,” rarely tread ground on the local dining scene. But not unfamiliar to Klein, who worked in the kitchen at the former Danube, chef David Bouley's sumptuous New York City homage to Austrian cooking.
“We want to explore the classics, we want to explore the culture,” he said. “I’m really excited to do a great schnitzel.” Other items include tafelspitz, the classic Austrian boiled beef dish, along with Belgian frites double-fried in beef fat and a whole roasted chicken for two stuffed with brioche and foie gras.
“You can’t talk about Hungarian food – and Jewish food -- without talking about foie gras,” said Klein. “We’re going to work a lot with foie gras, It’s one of my favorite ingredients. We have an amazing local source, of course [Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, Minn.], but Hungary is the third largest producer in the world, after France and Israel.”
The bar will stock an extensive schnapps selection (“You can’t go to that part of the world and not drink schnapps,” said Klein), and the wine program will be the domain of Meritage sommelier Nicolas Giraud.
Klein is also promising a “very serious dessert program,” run by an “all-star pastry chef” that he’s hired but isn’t naming, at least not yet. “We want to become a dessert destination, and this person is amazing,” he said. Let the speculation begin.
The 150-seat project is being designed by Shea Inc. of Minneapolis, the firm responsible for the handsome oyster bar that the Kleins added to Meritage in 2010.
Because construction isn’t scheduled to start for several months, a lot of design details haven’t been finalized. But Klein said that the dining room is aiming for an “old-world timelessness that’s also urban and urbane.” The exhibition kitchen will be anchored by a showy center-island stove, and a dining counter will offer customers a reach-out-and-touch proximity to Klein and his crew at work.
“I’m going to try to not swear too much,” Klein said with a laugh. “Some days will be better than others.”
One design aspect that’s definitely getting a lot of scrutiny is acoustics. “Like everyone else, I’m sick of restaurants where you can’t have a conversation,” said Klein. “Not that I want something hushed, either. They’ll definitely be a buzz.”
Ambitious, right? “But wait, that’s not all,” said Klein.
In another corner of the building, the Kleins plan to launch a wine bar they’re calling Foreign Legion. The plan is to offer an extensive cheese selection – displayed in a glassed cheese cave – along with a wide range of cured meats, grilled cheese sandwiches and desserts. Beer, too, but Klein noted the primary focus will be on wines.
The couple is also teaming up with Giraud to open a retail wine and spirits shop.
“It has been a dream of Nicolas’ for a long time,” said Klein. “We’re going to focus on what Nicolas always does, which is ferret out amazing, esoteric wines at great prices.”
The shop – there’s no name yet, but it will be located adjacent to Foreign Legion -- will also feature a large walk-in beer cooler.
Meanwhile, Klein also plans to venture into uncharted four-star chef territory: the skyway. Café Zentral, a breakfast-and-lunch outlet planned for the building’s second floor, will feature street food-style fare -- sweet and savory crepes (the one menu holdover from Meritage), Austrian-style frankfurter sandwiches -- as well as a wide variety of pastries (from the aforementioned mystery pastry chef), espresso, “and orange juice from one of those cool Zumex juicers that they have all over Europe,” said Klein. There are also plans for a take-and-bake dinner program, catering to the building’s residents and nearby office workers.
Although the Soo Line’s first residents won’t be moving in until later this fall, the address is already shaping up to be a banner location. The Nic on Fifth, a 26-story, 253-unit luxury apartment building, is going up along 5th Street between Nicollet and Marquette – caddy-corner from Brasserie Zentral -- and is set to open in August 2014.
4Marq, a 30-story, 262-unit luxury apartment tower, has been proposed for the 4th-and Marquette corner of that same block. Then there’s the Soo Line’s 254 apartments, not to mention the neighborhood's many offices and hotels.
“Minneapolis is exploding, and we feel pretty excited to be a part of that,” said Klein.
Brasserie Zentral will open first, sometime next spring, and the remaining three entities will follow, one after the next.
Opening a second restaurant is no easy feat, let alone a third, a fourth and a retail shop. Klein explains his motivation by referring to super chef Mario Batali. Klein once heard Batali explain why he kept launching more and more restaurants.
“And he said, ‘because I have such great people working for me, and they’re either going to grow with me, or grow somewhere else,’” said Klein. “We have such amazing people working at Meritage, and we need to provide opportunities for them, or they’ll take all that experience somewhere else.”
As for that whole crossing-the-river thing, “We’re really sensitive to the fact that St. Paulites are sensitive about this sort of thing,” said Klein. “Our customers are proud that we’re a St. Paul restaurant that draws people from Minneapolis, and we’re not abandoning St. Paul at all. Our biggest concern in this whole process is that Meritage remains excellent. Well, that, and finding 100 really good employees.”
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