Meritage doesn't bill itself as a seafood restaurant. But that's exactly what it is, plus a whole lot more. It just might be the best of its kind in the Midwest.
Here's the back story: The downtown St. Paul restaurant, which is just shy of its fourth birthday, is located off the glorious lobby of the equally glorious Hamm Building, and when an adjacent storefront became available last year, co-owners Russell and Desta Klein wisely snapped it up. The much-needed elbow room was transformed into an oyster bar outfitted in the same style as the urbane dining room, and voila: What had been a French restaurant with a flair for seafood has become a French-accented seafood fanatic's destination. And a fantastic one, at that.
What this diner appreciates most about chef Russell Klein's work, along with his faith in downtown St. Paul, is how he skillfully finds parity between classic and contemporary, formal and casual. That culinary balancing act is best viewed through the prism of lobster -- specifically, Klein's approach to it -- because anyone who loves lobster will adore Meritage.
Purists can enjoy it steamed and chilled, wrestling it to submission while it's still in the shell. Classicists will fall all over how Klein adds just enough gelatin to a decadent lobster consommé, fills it with generous chunks of tender poached lobster, then tops it with a sweet corn purée, a flavor marriage that can only be described as celestial. It's the epitome of excess, in a gleefully good way, and when that gossamer gelée comes in contact with your tongue, it melts back into consommé, a marvelous sleight-of-hand.
Klein also makes a wicked-good workingman's lobster roll, kissing the sweet, succulent meat with bits of tarragon and celery. It's an homage to his youth on New York's Long Island, where he spent plenty of time fishing the Atlantic and nurturing his passion for seafood.
Because the Kleins have gone to the considerable effort of developing relationships with purveyors on both coasts, their raw bar is stocked with oysters rarely, if ever, seen in the Twin Cities. Along with a second-to-none selection (which also happily includes whelks, coaxed from a Maine forager), the oysters are also beautifully and skillfully presented, a rarity for this landlocked region.
There can't be a more impressive shrimp cocktail. Klein doesn't pull any punches, using ultra-jumbo shrimp that are wild-caught off Mexico's Baja coast, then gently poaching them so each bite boasts a pronounced snap; the accompanying cocktail sauce is appropriately lively. Earlier this year, my favorite seat in the house was at the zinc-topped bar, where I indulged, guilt-free, in my hunger for sweet, unadulterated crab.
Even something so familiar as raw tuna gets the velvet glove treatment, tossing it with a feisty combination of ginger juice and a Sriracha-laced mayonnaise before spooning it into crunchy taro-root taco shells. They're $3.50 a pop, one of a half-dozen flirtatious little "amusements" -- don't miss the refreshing gazpacho, or the heart-attack-inducing duck liver pâté -- and limiting yourself to one is close to impossible.
Several entrees on the current menu are showcases for both seafood and Klein's considerable skills. He's at the top of his form with a riff on bouillabaisse, with a little ratatouille thrown in for good measure. It pays tribute to iconic French dishes while inserting a modern American interpretation, with crisp-skinned wild striped bass surrounded by a finely calibrated flurry of tastes. Ditto a reinvented Nicoise salad, with braised escarole pinch-hitting for fresh greens and velvety, barely seared yellowfin tuna as the main attraction.
There's a lovely risotto peppered with rock shrimp, the dish prepared with an enviable light touch. Thin ribbons of cool cucumbers and lushly smoked salmon, dressed, pitch-perfectly, with dill, mustard and fried capers, make for a memorably good salad. My sole disappointment, seafood-wise, was a past-its-prime serving of steamed blue mussels, a surprise -- and, I'm thinking, an anomaly -- for a kitchen that is otherwise so obviously detail-obsessed.
Beyond the sea
This is not just a fish story. A couscous house in Marseilles formed the inspiration for a boldly seasoned lamb/chicken/lamb-sausage dish, with each principal ingredient braised in the ever-more-concentrated juices of its predecessor. Klein puts out a dream of a pork chop and a grilled-to-perfection steak, and anyone in a roast-chicken-and-mashed potatoes mood need look no further than the expert version put forth here.
Yes, Meritage (the name rhymes with heritage) is as flexible as a Bikram yoga practitioner. A Wild fan in search of a phenomenal burger, equally addictive French fries and an ice-cold beer will feel right at home seated next to a table of special-occasion diners, and vice versa. The bar food is superb: fantastic smoked chicken wings, hearty pork rillette and divine roasted bone marrow, both spread across spears of grilled bread, and a flatbread dressed with a can't-miss combination of caramelized onions, bits of smoky bacon and a splash of crème fraîche.
The noon-hour soup-and-salad crowd will appreciate how Klein manages to make chicken soup with matzo balls an elegant experience. He captures sweet corn's summertime essence in a velouté cleverly garnished with corn-bread croutons; in a naughty turn, a bit of bacon fat adds another flavor dimension, but keeps the dizzyingly delicious results off limits to vegetarians.
Vegetables, dessert and more
That said, Klein doesn't forget about the meatless among his customer base, and he doesn't relegate them to dreary Pasta Primaveraland, either. Instead, he selects a seasonal vegetable -- right now it's sweet corn, but a few weeks ago it was English peas -- and incorporates it into an array of cleverly packaged bite-sized dishes on a single platter.
Post-Ordway sweet-seekers can find refuge in the traditionally minded desserts, which are painstakingly executed by sous chef Jon Beyreuther. There's an airy chocolate mousse crowned with an indecently rich dollop of whipped cream and dainty profiteroles drizzled with an intense chocolate sauce, but topping the don't-miss charts is a wonderfully tangy lemon tart.
More assets: Weekend brunch is a delight, and if my employer were based in the capital city, I'd make Meritage -- and the kitchen's perfectly turned omelet of the day -- my go-to business lunch reservation. A newly installed chef's table allows Klein to indulge in tasting-menu spontaneity. The sidewalk patio, with its scenic Rice Park surroundings, and the sweep of gleaming terra cotta gorgeousness that is the Hamm Building's facade, has few peers. There's even a terrific little weekday crêpe stand, a source for an ever-changing array of both savory and sweet streetwise snacks.
That restaurants are highly collaborative enterprises is immediately evident at Meritage, where the front-of-the-house crew operates with the well rehearsed timing of a long-running Broadway play, thanks to the efforts of Desta Klein and managers Nicolas Giraud and Mark Govich. Their collective sense of hospitality, which permeates down to the staffers filling the bread baskets and answering the telephone, is a model for other restaurateurs, and a pleasure to behold.