Hamline News

Taste of Success

meritage-big

By Marla Holt

Meritage, Saint Paul’s renowned French brasserie and oyster bar, is tucked on the ground floor of the historic Hamm Building on St. Peter Street, behind the Landmark Center. Whether you’re seated inside its charming dining room or outside on the sidewalk, you get the sense of being at a Paris street café, enjoying a glass of wine and a delicious meal while being attended to by friendly and knowledgeable servers. 

That’s just how the restaurant’s owners, Desta Collier Klein ’99 and her husband, Chef Russell Klein, like it. “This place celebrates the Paris of the 1920s and ’30s,” Desta says, “and through it we honor and celebrate the history of restaurants, which developed over time in urban centers as a place of respite for travelers. The food that Russell creates, the ambience, and the service standards we uphold are all informed by that history. We want people to see Meritage as a place of rest where they can enjoy a meal and be taken care of.”

The couple opened Meritage — the name is a blend of “merit” and “heritage” and comes from a Napa Valley wine in the style of Bordeaux — in November 2007, just six months after their wedding reception was held in the same space, previously a restaurant called À Rebours. They’d also had their second date there (after meeting when Desta was a server and Russell was the chef at W.A. Frost, another top Saint Paul restaurant), and felt a connection to it because it reminded them of Balthazar, a favorite eatery in New York City. 

“We were blissfully unaware at the time that we would end up with it becoming Meritage,” Desta says. After the couple’s honeymoon, À Rebours’ owner offered to sell the space to them, and they jumped at the chance.

“Our vision was that Meritage would be a classic, comfortable French brasserie,” says Chef Klein, whose classical French training came under the tutelage of Jacques Pepin at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Meritage, which has made its way onto many “best-of” lists, is an American restaurant in the French style, using predominantly locally sourced ingredients to cook seasonal dishes that reflect the different regions of France. 

“We offer what people understand to be classical French food—escargot, French onion soup, steak frites. But that’s just barely scratching the surface of French cuisine,” Chef Klein says. His expanded and evolving menu includes such items as pan-seared Scottish salmon, braised Iowa lamb shank, and glazed Wild Acres duck breast.

While Russell creates the food, Desta runs the business side of the restaurant. She reluctantly claims the title of CEO, which is appropriate, considering she’s managing a $3-million-a-year operation. 

The Kleins opened Meritage’s adjacent oyster bar in 2010, offering crafted cocktails and oysters farmed in waters across the United States. Each year the space hosts OysterFest, a daylong celebration of the bivalve that includes live music, an oyster school, and shucking stations with visiting oyster farmers from both coasts. The event typically attracts more than 1,200 people.

Desta, who has been around the food-service industry her whole life, has been intentional about creating what she calls a haven for food-service professionals at Meritage, taking pride in the quality of the staff. “We’ve created a place where there is honor in working in the service industry,” she says. 

“I believe education gives you perspective, and my education at Hamline certainly gave me that, along with the ability to think critically,” Desta says. “Being a part of that academic community was amazing, considering I was a non-traditional, first-generation student from a very blue-collar world,” she says. Desta had earned a GED and an associate’s degree at Anoka Ramsey Community College before transferring into Hamline as a Presidential Scholar. After graduating with a degree in psychology, she worked in the university’s undergraduate admission office for five years while also working toward an MFA degree.

She left the university to return to her roots in food service, taking with her an understanding of the need to create a workplace that gives its employees a sense of purpose. To that end, Meritage’s servers are some of the best trained in the industry, taking part in ongoing education about wine, oysters, and French cuisine. They’re also highly educated, with many holding four-year or graduate-level degrees. 

“We give our servers as much creative license in the front of the house as we give the guys in the kitchen,” she says. “I try to inspire them to come up with interesting ways to interact with people. We love to take care of people, and a high level of hospitality is as important to us as our food.”

In April of this year, the Kleins took their commitment to historically-informed, culturally-based cuisine one step further in opening a second restaurant, Brasserie Zentral. Housed in downtown Minneapolis’s historic Soo Line Building, the restaurant celebrates the cuisine of central Europe—think Austro-Hungarian Empire—with food that fills your belly and your soul, Desta says.

“The cuisine of Austria and Hungary isn’t as well known as French cuisine, but people are really starting to warm to it,” she says. BZ, as Desta calls the new restaurant, makes simple and satisfying Old World cuisine elegant, featuring updated comfort food you might recall your grandmother cooking, such as Wiener Schnitzel or spaetzle, as well as a variety of fish, duck, lamb, and pork dishes. The menu also includes locally and ethically raised foie gras. In a review in Heavy Table, James Norton wrote that BZ is “serving what may well be the best food in the city of Minneapolis.”

Chef Klein’s family roots in the region and the couple’s own travels there inspired the restaurant. “We’re creating food that is informed by heritage and tradition,” Desta says, but BZ is also at the center of what she calls a “lifestyle project.” 

With condos springing up in and around the Soo Line Building, Brasserie Zentral is a well-timed addition to a rising neighborhood with lots of new residents. Desta hopes the restaurant becomes a favored gathering place, much like Meritage is for Saint Paul. BZ, together with two additional ventures, Café Zentral in the skyway and a wine bar called Foreign Legion that will open this fall, has the potential to become an anchor for the community. 

“We thought about what speaks to us and what amenities we would want if we were living or working downtown,” Desta says. “We’d want a beautiful restaurant, but we’d also want a European-style café with espresso, good croissants, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We’d want a wine bar where we could go for a little light nosh and a glass of wine after finishing up work.”

The most rewarding part of the Kleins’ very busy days as duo-restaurant owners remains the opportunity to serve people. “I hope our guests leave with a sense of pleasure, a sense that they’ve been taken care of, that they’ve escaped their world for a little while,” Chef Klein says.

Other alumni entrepreneurs working in the food service industry

 

 CAFÉ RACER 

Owners: Luis Patino ’08 and Christine Patino ’08 

Location: A food truck and full-service catering company with varied locations 

Menu: Gourmet Latin American cuisine, inspired by food Luis ate as a child growing up in Colombia. The truck features slow-roasted pulled pork, chicken, and beef as well as a vegetarian option.  

Their story: In Café Racer, which opened in 2012, Luis has combined his passion for the food of his home country and his love of motorcycles. Christine, a Minneapolis police officer, handles all the behind-the-scenes details for the business. The name Café Racer comes from both a bike that’s been stripped down to the essentials needed for speed and a type of rider or subculture of the 1960s that used the bikes to race from café to café in European countries.

 

SNUFFY'S MALT SHOP

Owner: Mike Mueller ’85 

Location: 1125 Larpenteur Avenue West, Saint Paul

Menu: Modeled after drive-ins popular in the 1950s and ’60s, Snuffy’s is known for its hamburgers and malts, which come in more than 30 flavors. 

His story: Mueller and his father founded Snuffy’s while Mueller was still a student at Hamline in 1982. The business grew to eventually include four locations, although Mueller currently owns and operates just the location on Larpenteur. He creates good-quality burgers, sandwiches, and sides for busy families to enjoy, but he’s most proud of Snuffy’s malts.

 

TRIPLE ROCK SOCIAL CLUB

Owner:  Erik Funk ’96

Location: 629 Cedar Avenue South, Minneapolis

Menu: A full bar with standard fare, including hot wings, burgers, fries, soups, and sandwiches, as well as a wide selection of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options. 

His story: In the late 1990s, Funk—a guitarist in the punk band Dillinger Four—and his wife were looking for a corner bar with vegetarian and vegan food on the menu and punk rock music on the jukebox. At the time, local restaurant options for vegetarian food were a bit more upscale, so they opened Triple Rock in 1998 to offer “meatless food that you could hunker down on,” Funk says. In 2003, they turned the patio next door into a hip, edgy punk rock club.

 

IZZY'S ICE CREAM

Owners: Jeff Sommers ’90 and Lara Hammel ’90

Location: 2034 Marshall Avenue, Saint Paul, and 1100 Second Street South, Minneapolis

Menu: Super-premium ice cream in more than 150 flavors, including those that most people expect and enjoy, but also more unusual ones like Umeshu, a dark chocolate ice cream made with Japanese plum wine, and Mango Django, a mango ice cream with honey, balsamic vinegar, poppy seeds, cayenne pepper, and ground pink peppercorns.

Their story: Sommers and Hammel traded in careers in teaching and law to become ice cream shop owners in 2000. Sommers took classes from a master of Italian gelato, who gave him this advice: Smile and give tastes. Thus, the Izzy Scoop®, a small add-on scoop that comes with every order, was born.