Shucking oysters in the face of doom: The staying power of Meritage

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As many fine-dining restaurants fold and smaller, chef-driven spots continue to pop up, what gives St. Paul’s Meritage its staying power? // Photo by Domini Brown

There’s a style of dining that has been steadily vanishing from the Twin Cities in recent years. The kind of experience where you arrive in your finest outfit, are greeted by an impossibly caring host, and sit in an elegant room at a white tablecloth. Where a knowledgeable, non-apathetic server will care of you professionally, and achieve that rare balance of presence and absence that allows you to bask in your special night out. Where you can order a classically prepared cassoulet or steak frites, sip a fine wine in Riedel crystal, and marvel at the briny wonders of the blindingly fresh crustaceans dotting your seafood tower like shimmering gems.

This is the kind of experience diners have been enjoying at Meritage—St. Paul’s standard-bearer for French fine dining—for almost 10 years. In November of 2007, Russell and Desta Klein opened their new restaurant on the edge of the yawning chasm that was the Great Recession. That crisis, along with a lack of residential development, took down high-end restaurants all over town, and downtown St. Paul became ghostly. Yet there stood Meritage.

In the nine years since opening, there has been an upheaval in the Twin Cities restaurant scene. Fine dining restaurants trading on classic French technique, service and formality—like La Belle Vie, Vincent, Auriga, and Five—have fallen in favor of small, casual, chef-driven neighborhood spots like Tilia, Revival, Nighthawks, and Piccolo. French bistros Margaux and A Rebours, formerly of St. Paul, live on only in delicious memory (the latter of which operated in the same space Meritage stands today). Other, newer restaurants that made an ambitious play in the upper-scale space, like Il Foro, have withered more recently—including the Klein’s own ill-fated downtown Minneapolis effort, Brasserie Zentral.

Today, there are more restaurants opening than ever in the Twin Cities, and downtown St. Paul is experiencing a dining renaissance. But the smart money is on the little guys with reclaimed wood tables, and menus that wouldn’t seem out of place on the side of a food truck. Places where long wine lists and gracious service are supplanted with short cocktail and beer menus, and sometimes no front-of-house staff at all.

So where does Meritage fit into this strange new landscape? How did this throwback French brasserie that slings onion soup, steak frites, roast chicken, and oysters not only survive the recession that decimated so many other white tablecloth outposts, but manage to stay relevant and thriving among a rash of new dining options in St. Paul on a street full of hockey bars? What are the Kleins doing so right that is propelling Meritage toward institutional status? We chatted with them both to figure it out.

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Meritage owners Russell and Desta Klein // Photo by Domini Brown

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Oysters at Meritage // Photo by Domini Brown

Growler: With the shuttering of so many fine dining establishments in recent years, what keeps Meritage going strong?

s: Every restaurant closes for its own reasons. We’ve had restaurants that have closed—frankly, that I thought were pretty good. So there’s all sorts of reasons that those restaurants aren’t around anymore—some of those restaurants had long runs. Frankly, longer than Meritage has been around, so far.

Desta Klein: We hope to surpass! [laughs] That’s the plan.

RK: But there’s no doubt that there’s a trend toward more casual dining. When we opened, people told us we were crazy to touch French. French food was out. That was the time of “freedom fries,” frankly. So I think at first we maybe soft-pedaled the French, and it wasn’t until a critic in town said to me, “What are you doing, you’re French—just fuckin’ say it!” So, that was a big thing, and it was before we even opened—

DK: But when we opened, we owned it [being French]. It was the same thing with the oyster bar and the expansion. That’s one thing that makes Meritage unique: we celebrate history, culture, heritage, a way of dining, and an appreciation of dining that is so far above and beyond us. We’re not laden with trend; we’re not worrying about whether our plate ware is meeting with the latest style.

RK: Right, it’s not about that. The other thing is that fundamentally, let’s face it, in terms of modern American cooking, it is all based in French technique. So the dishes that form the foundation of our menu—steak frites, mussels, onion soup, cassoulet, roast chicken—there’s nothing trendy about these things, there’s nothing creative about those. They’re dishes that people have loved for 200 years.

DK: But I think what keeps Meritage fresh and keeps us timely is Russell’s take on French cooking, and that there is always a creative element that’s seasonally charged. There is always an eye toward what’s new, but not what’s trendy—more like what’s available. What are the best things farmers are bringing in.

RK: The menu has always been a mix of classic dishes and contemporary French cooking.

Next page: Reinvest, not reinvent

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