Downtown Minneapolis is crawling with construction projects, including the billion-dollar Vikings stadium, the $79.3 million Target Field Station transportation hub and more apartment buildings than an urban statistician can follow.
For food lovers, the biggest buzz-generating newcomer is currently raising up all kinds of dust in the historic Soo Line Building at Marquette and 5th (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo). That’s where Meritage co-owners Russell and Desta Klein are carving out a potentially transformative dining-and-drinking quartet: Brasserie Zentral, Foreign Legion, a wine-and-spirits retail shop and Cafe Zentral.
Following a hardhat tour earlier this week, it’s clear that the Kleins (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) have an affinity for historic buildings. Meritage is located in the glorious Hamm Building, which was built just four years after the Soo Line, a 19-story Beaux-Arts beauty that went up in 1915 to house the First National Bank of Minneapolis. Until the Foshay Tower opened in 1929, the building was the tallest commercial structure on the Minneapolis skyline. Developer Village Green paid nearly $12 million for the building and has spent the past year giving it a top-to-bottom renovation.
The Kleins' project spreads out over three levels, and because it's in various stages of construction flux, nothing is terribly photogenic at the moment (picture unpainted drywall, scarred concrete and exposed venting ducts), which is why I pretty much dispensed with my camera and stuck to my notebook. Here’s what I learned:
Brasserie Zentral. The restaurant is located at the Marquette/5th corner of the building (pictured, above), the spot anchored by that iconic black-and-white clock hanging over the sidewalk. A relatively low ceiling (the Soo Line’s soaring interior spaces are reserved for the second floor, once home to the building’s original grand banking hall, long since remodeled out of existence) dictated an intimacy to Brasserie Zentral’s overall design.
“We want it to have a timeless look, so it will feel a part of this timeless building,” said Desta Klein. “We want to celebrate the brasserie culture that exists outside of Paris, in places like Vienna, Munich and Budapest.”
The 150-seat dining room (by comparison, Meritage originally had 80 seats and has since grown to 125) has windows on two sides, and turns its back on the building’s decorated-within-an-inch-of-its-life lobby.
Rather than a single large, sweeping space, architect David Shea of Shea Inc. in Minneapolis has sectioned off the floor plan into a series of interconnected rooms within a room. A 10-seat bar anchors one of two interior walls and the exhibition kitchen – flanked by a 10-seat chef’s counter – holds down the other one.
In a matter of weeks, the floors will be finished in dark hardwoods, and the walls will be predominantly a vibrant Provence yellow, with burgundy and gold accents. Many of the tables will be semi-circular banquettes.
The kitchen is aiming for showplace status. “We’re building a Swiss watch in this place, one with plenty of horsepower,” said Shea. At its center, literally, is a European-style island stove, designed so that chefs face one another as they work, rather than stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a single line.
“It’s such a sexy stove,” said Russell Klein. “I’m excited to show it off.”
Meritage is closed on Mondays, so Russell Klein and his crew have been using the time to develop the menus for the Soo Line project. Klein has described Brasserie Zentral's emphasis as “Continental cuisine with a real focus on central Europe,” an exciting prospect for Twin Cities diners, since those traditions don’t get a lot of play in local restaurants.
“Although I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said. Along with his take on classic dishes from Austria and Hungary, Klein said that he hopes to reach into Spain, Belgium and the Alsace region, for starters.
The bar will feature a line of schnapps created specifically for the restaurant by Parallel 45, the craft distillery in New Richmond, Wis., and will also place an emphasis on Alsatian and Austrian wines. Expect a strong beer program, too. The restaurant will also feature a 10-seat private dining room.
The Kleins are in the middle of a hiring spree. They’ve recruited Goodfellow’s alum Troy Unruh, a veteran of a number of top New York City restaurants, including Del Posto, Jean Georges and Le Bernardin, to run Brasserie Zentral’s day-to-day operations.
They’ve also hired Niki Francioli, formerly of Sea Change, as pastry chef.
Meanwhile, back at Meritage, longtime sous chef Jon Beyreuther has been promoted to chef de cuisine.
Another 75 to 80 employees will be added to the Zentral payroll in the next three months; right now the couple employs 60 at Meritage.
The project has a kind of iceberg quality: All the real estate that will eventually be visible to the public eye is supported by an enormous maze of prep kitchens, walk-in coolers, work rooms, dishwashing stations, storage spaces, locker rooms and offices, all filling the building’s basement.
“I never thought that in my life I would get a chance to do a project like this,” said Russell Klein. “I never thought we would literally build from scratch something of this magnitude. But in the end, we’re opening a restaurant, and I just hope that people show up.”
Opening: An as-yet-announced day in April.
Foreign Legion. Across the Soo Line lobby from Brasserie Zentral, the Kleins will be introducing another dining-and-drinking element that is currently in short supply in downtown Minneapolis: A wine bar.
“It’s going to have an entirely different personality from Brasserie Zentral,” said Russell Klein. The menu will be dominated by an array of small plates, including a number of variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, no surprise since the restaurant will keep an inventory of what Klein describes as a “huge” cheese selection.
“We don’t have a number on it yet, but it’s a lot,” he said. “The possibilities are of course endless, and so it becomes the same challenge associated with creating a wine list. You have to curate, you have to filter. It’s easy to put together a 10,000-bottle wine list, but it’s hard to choose 100. So we’ll be thinking about things like, ‘what’s showing well right now?’ It will constantly evolve.”
Foreign Legion will also feature cured meats made specifically for the restaurant by local charcuterie kingpin Mike Phillips. And desserts. Lots of desserts. “One of the reasons that we’re so excited about signing up Niki is that we want to be known as the place where you go for dessert,” said Desta Klein, putting an emphasis on the.
The 60-seat space will include a 10-seat bar, a four-seat cheese counter and two private dining rooms. What you won’t see: Television screens. Hurrah.
“We debated about that, a lot,” said Russell Klein. “TVs are so distracting. We decided that we want to get back to what restaurants are all about, which is socializing with friends and family.”
One demographic the Kleins are targeting are the residents upstairs, with hopes that the building’s occupants will think of the casual, more affordably priced Foreign Legion as an extension of their living quarters. Including the Kleins, who have taken an apartment in the swank building. Right now it's doubling as an office, but it will eventually morph in to a convenient crash pad.
Opening: Probably a post-Labor Day date, to be determined. “We want to make sure that we get everything right with Brasserie Zentral before we proceed with Foreign Legion,” said Russell Klein.
Wine and spirits shop. The Soo Line's commercial space was originally being eyed by a local supermarket chain, which ultimately bailed when the building’s short-term parking situation (bottom line: there isn’t any) couldn’t be rectified.
The supermarket’s plans included a wine shop. As it happens, longtime Meritage sommelier Nicolas Giraud dreamed of opening a wine shop. Bingo. The Kleins are becoming retailers, with a boutique operation (one that will include a delivery service throughout the downtown skyway system) located on the 5th St. side of the building’s lobby and managed by Giraud.
“Now Nico gets what he wants, and we diversify our revenues,” said Desta Klein.
The shop doesn’t have a name, yet. “We’re working on that,” said Russell Klein. “Names are some of the hardest things about opening a restaurant, although Zentral and Foreign Legion came to us right away. Right now we’re calling it Zentral Wine & Spirits, but we’re not in love with it.”
Opening: No set date, but it will follow Brasserie Zentral’s debut.
Cafe Zentral. It’s hard to picture a Jimmy John’s occupying the spiffy skyway level of the newly refurbished Soo Line, and thanks to the Kleins, downtowners won’t have to. Instead, this second-story counter-service format will offer uncomplicated street fare, including grilled cheese sandwiches, crepes and Mike Phillips-made sausages. “Quick and casual, but real food,” said Russell Klein. "We're going to be taking healthful, locally sourced food, and bring it to the skyway." At long last.
Opening: Spring. “Just in time for food truck season,” said Russell Klein with a laugh.
The Kleins clearly have a nose for real estate, because the formerly sleepy corner of 5th and Marquette is about to get incredibly busy.
Within the next year, nearly 800 not-inexpensive apartments will sit within a few hundred feet of the Zentral zone. The Soo Line’s 254 units are filling up fast. The 26-story Nic on Fifth – at Nicollet and 5th, obviously – is opening later this year with 253 apartments (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo), and ground is breaking soon on 4Marq, a 30-story, 262-unit tower on the same block, at Marquette and 4th. Oh, and a 13-story, 320-unit apartment building has been proposed for the half-block parking lot that now occupies 301 Washington Av. S., five blocks from Zentral.
The area’s daytime population is also experiencing a major growth spurt.
The 510 Marquette office building – across Marquette from the Soo Line -- is currently under renovation and several large tenants -- including Campbell Mithun advertising, RedBrick Health and Augsburg Fortress publishing – have signed leases, meaning hundreds of workers will be moving in. And later this year, Xcel Energy is planning on demolishing a dreary 1960s parking ramp at Nicollet and 4th and replacing it with a 9-story office building.
In addition, the Hiawatha and soon-to-open Central Corridor light rail lines (renamed Blue and Green lines) stop a half-block away. In other words, in the not-so-distant future, a whole lot of people are going to be living and working within a stone’s throw of the Kleins' new enterprise.
“We really had no intention of expanding into Minneapolis,” said Russell Klein. “But at some point, the opportunity was just too incredible for us to pass up.”