"Of all the dishes on the menu, this is my favorite one to serve," said my waiter.
What a coincidence: It also happened to be my favorite to eat -- OK, one of many -- but I digress.
The wide white bowl in front of me was partially filled with a pair of swooningly tender dumplings, precisely cut carrot dices and dainty snips of fresh dill. As my server carefully poured a pristine chicken stock from a small white pitcher, I closed my eyes and inhaled. The golden soup's steam curled up into my nose and flirted with my appetite.
My stomach rumbled. My mouth watered. I reached for my spoon. Then a thought flashed across my mind for a split-second: Matzo ball soup, in a French restaurant?
But that's what I love about Meritage. Chef/co-owner Russell Klein fully embraces his Gallic restaurant roots (the native New Yorker trained at the French Culinary Institute under Jacques Pepin, and an influential early job was at La Caravelle, one of Manhattan's legendary French kitchens), and that's a gutsy move in a town not exactly known for its Francophilian ways. But he's also not locked into a rigid brasserie model, casually inserting dishes that reflect his whole life experience.
That emotional connection comes through in that soup, even if you're not privy to its just-like-Mom-made heritage. I got a similar visceral jab off another triumph: roasted wild striped bass, so delicately crispy outside, so moist and succulent inside, with additional textural playfulness from bits of cauliflower and rock shrimp masquerading as one another. Turns out Klein and striped bass go way back; he's been pulling them out of Atlantic waters since he was a kid.
Klein ran the show at W.A. Frost & Co. for more than five years before stepping out on his own last year, and it's such a pleasure to see what he can do outside that high-volume Cathedral Hill shop. At his much smaller downtown restaurant, Klein is slowing down, paring down and flexing an obvious technical facility (he's one of the top seafood practitioners in town). His customers benefit.
An exceptional duck breast, paired with a superb house-made duck sausage and sprightly spaetzle, demonstrates how Klein is confident enough to occasionally step back and allow top-shelf ingredients to speak for themselves. Ditto a stunner of a beet salad. Pan-fried chicken -- pressed under a brick on the stove and then generously brushed with butter, shallots and thyme -- is extraordinary, and it's a steal at $18. But even the menu's priciest item, a $32 venison loin, is worth every penny. Klein rolls medallions in powdered black trumpet mushrooms before he sears the meat, its intense color beautifully matched by an equally ruby red wine-beet sauce. I miss an earlier homage to Minnesota-raised pork, a fabulous tenderloin-braised cheek-roasted rib array served with leeks and apples. Perhaps he'll bring it back?
More than a brasserie
Brasserie standards are delivered with aplomb, including steak frites, a sturdy cassoulet, a crock of hearty onion soup, a beautifully aromatic bouillabaisse, an excellent burger. Sometimes it feels as if Klein is toying with classic dishes to stave off boredom, both his and ours. There's a rabbit rillette, sure, but then he fashions it into a cake and pan-fries it before adding a perfectly poached quail egg and bits of squash and curly frisée. With escargot, he drops the familiar butter-garlic-parsley formula in favor of a rich, seasonally appropriate port wine-root vegetable stew. Ricotta-filled gnocchi, unbelievably light, are made with pâte à choux rather than potatoes, sautéed in brown butter and finished with a pesto that replaces basil and pine nuts with arugula and walnuts. Heaven.
I like how Klein tosses off a half-dozen great looking two-bite snacks and prices them at just three bucks a pop. Lunch, sunny and cheery, is a treat, too. The prosperous-looking crowd clearly enjoys what is essentially an abbreviated dinner menu that's boosted by a few uncomplicated noon-hour regulars, including pretty open-faced sandwiches, a well-prepared daily omelet and several pleasant salads.
Sure, there are occasional missteps, usually undercooking or overseasoning, blips I attribute to a kitchen crew not quite yet into its groove. While there are reasons to drop by for weekend brunch (cornmeal pancakes, for starters), the meal doesn't feel as grounded -- or distinctive -- as its lunch and dinner counterparts. The cute little cheese cart could be a pretentious horror, but it's so not. Still, it's clearly not living up to its potential when it features just four or five selections, no matter how well chosen.
Desserts are up and down. There's a fine crème brûlée trio and a dreamy chocolate-hazelnut cake, served with an even dreamier ice cream, a caramel-sea salt concoction made by Izzy's (for the truly addicted, Klein sells it by the pint). I was never bowled over by the kitchen's signature, an unevenly flavored frozen orange soufflé, and a deconstructed hot chocolate was all about cleverness rather than intrinsic appeal.
Meritage is blessed with a primo setting, inside and out. It has the good fortune of being located within the glorious Hamm Building, and talk about a scene-setter. Make that scene-stealer, because to access the restaurant, diners must stroll through the building's vaulted, tiled-to-the-hilt lobby. There's nothing particularly fancy about the dining room, but it does have great bones: a long bank of windows, white walls, burgundy woodwork and upholstery and airy double-height ceilings. The quarters are tight, but not cramped, which means that when it's fully booked, the place hums with a vivacious, big-city vibe that few Twin Cities restaurants achieve.
Klein and his spouse/business partner Desta Klein -- she runs the front of the house with a gracious warmth -- obviously knew a good thing when they saw it, because they've altered very little since its days as A Rebours. (One complaint: The too-small bar remains little more than a service counter.) The towering windows act as a frame for Rice Park's urbane environs, which by comparison make much of downtown Minneapolis resemble a suburban office park.
"So, what's with the name?" a friend of mine asked. Easy: It's a made-up word, created 20 years ago by several California vintners who were looking to christen Bordeaux-style blended wines. But how to pronounce it? I've heard several variations, so I called Russell Klein and solicited his opinion. That got a laugh.
"It's a conjunction of 'merit' and 'heritage,' he said. "The wine geeks will tell you that it's 'heritage with an M,' and that's how I pronounce it. But I don't really care how it's pronounced. I'm just happy to hear people talking about it."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757