When Meritage co-owners Russell and Desta Klein announced plans that they were expanding into downtown Minneapolis, their first item of business was to emphasize that they were not creating a carbon copy of their popular downtown St. Paul restaurant and oyster bar.

True, they weren't walking away from their love of historic properties. Meritage is housed in the landmark Hamm Building, and the newcomer they christened Brasserie Zentral is the anchor of a top-to-bottom revitalization of the 99-year-old Soo Line Building.

Russell Klein also turned to the past for culinary inspiration, burrowing into the food traditions of his Central European forebears, then modernizing those memories. At first glance, the menu's pretzels, sauerkraut and sausages might suggest boisterous beer halls, but Klein's refined cooking reflects a different paradigm, that of the urbane brasseries of Vienna, Budapest and Munich.

Whether it's spaetzle with rabbit, glazed duck with dumplings, smoked sablefish, veal schnitzel, pork cheek goulash, boiled beef shoulder, stuffed cabbage rolls or foie gras treated six ever-more glorious ways, the highly personal menu has no local peer. An exhaustively researched wine list, polished service staff and suave surroundings (a high point in the already remarkable design portfolio of Shea Inc. of Minneapolis) only add to the experience.

The Kleins' affiliated Soo Line businesses also impress. Foreign Legion is the wine-centric — and cheese-obsessed — getaway that downtown has been sorely lacking. Quick-service Cafe Zentral rises far above the dreary lowest-common-denominator mentality that plagues skyway-level dining.

A wine retail shop was initially part of the plan, but the space evolved into a pet boutique. Typically, Russell Klein is all in. "I am hoping that in the next year we will be rolling out our own line of dog food," he said.

A four-star chef's version of Alpo should come as no surprise because, as Brasserie Zentral so effortlessly demonstrates, Twin Cities diners have learned to expect the unexpected from the Kleins. □


Although he has been a familiar and respected presence on the Twin Cities dining scene over the past decade, it wasn't until he launched Heyday that chef Jim Christiansen unlocked the full breadth of his gifts.

And what vivid, imaginative and spectacular cooking it is. Christiansen's work appeals to all of the senses — his sense of color is museum-worthy — and his playful embrace of up-to-the-minute culinary techniques yields one happy surprise after another (yes, that's edible onion "ash" and yogurt "snow"), creating a Twin Cities rarity: a dining experience that manages to be accessible and exciting. Bravo.

Travail Kitchen and AMUSEMENTS and THE ROOKERY

The restaurant's roomy new home has reordered the local dining-out universe in countlessly rewarding ways, starting with the chef collective's ingenious plan to split its singular enterprise into two interconnected and highly entertaining entities.

On the Travail side, diners are fully immersed in a tasting-menu-to-end-all-tasting-menus platform. For a less programmed evening, there's the Rookery, where mad-scientist cocktails and a lengthy roster of inexpensive a la carte splendors await. Truly, dining out has rarely been this much fun.