A St. Paul restaurant known for its upscale menu and dishes prepared using local ingredients distinguished itself in a different way last fall.
Meritage eclipsed all others in the number of serious food-code violations it racked up in the second half of 2012. A flurry of inspections followed a confirmed report in September of a patron being sickened by a bacterium found in oysters.
“Obviously we do everything we can to mitigate the risk involved” in eating raw oysters, Meritage owner and chef Russell Klein said in an interview. “When you sell as many oysters as we do, these things are going to happen.”
The restaurant is at odds with inspectors over other issues.
Several other restaurants with the highest number of critical violations were located in the Hmong Village indoor market on Johnson Parkway.
St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections found 1,725 new or unabated critical food-code violations during 261 inspections at 210 restaurants in the second half of 2012.
I list the 10 restaurants with the most new or unabated critical violations. Critical violations pose a higher risk of causing foodborne illness. Asterisks indicate critical violations still present at a later inspection in the six-month period. Two asterisks denote presence during two reinspections.
Unless otherwise noted, all critical violations have since been abated.
1. Meritage, 410 St. Peter St., 29 critical violations, 37 total
Most of Meritage’s violations related to food handling, rather than cleanliness. “Our kitchen is spotless,” Klein said. Two violations cited were for the use of unpasteurized eggs for sauces and failure of the restaurant to freeze certain fish to ensure the destruction of potential parasites.
“These aren’t optional items,” said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the city Department of Safety and Inspections. “This is the Minnesota Department of Health food code, which follows federal and state rules. The city of St. Paul operates under a state delegation agreement to enforce the ... code.”
But Klein said that’s not what his customers want or expect. “It would have a seriously deleterious impact on our reputation if we changed the quality of what we do to comply with” those areas of code, he said.
The law does allow a restaurant to serve raw or undercooked food if the diner requests it, as in the case of sunny-side-up eggs or a medium-rare burger, and is informed about it. The other option is for a restaurant to prove to the state that its method of preparation is safe.
Klein said he is having an “ongoing conversation” with inspectors on the issue.
Meritage violations: Person in charge not knowledgeable.** No employee illness log. No temperature log kept for receipt of certain food including oysters.* Cold food too warm. “Toxic” spray bottle found on prep table.
New during reinspection: Wild mushrooms source not immediately identified. Seafood containers not properly tagged. Seafood not properly frozen for parasite destruction.* Hot food cooled too slowly. Raw oyster cooler too warm. Raw unpasteurized eggs used for sauces and cocktails.* Lemons sliced with bare hands. Raw eggs stored above ready-to-eat food. Food-handling plans not submitted.* No sanitizer in cleaning solution. Utensils stored in containers of water between use. Six critical violations await reinspection.
2. Dragon Express, 1001 Johnson Pkwy., 9 critical, 19 total
Open employee beverage containers. Food not date-marked. Hot food too cool.** No record of time when cooked food held at room temperature must be eaten or thrown away. Bulk food stored in open containers. Cooler too warm. Employee hand sink inaccessible.