A Toast to Meritage’s 10 Years in St. Paul
Russell and Desta Klein have the best of both worlds, an award-winning restaurant and a reason to travel the world looking for new ideas to keep it fresh.
When Russell Klein laps the dining room of his iconic St. Paul French brasserie and oyster bar, Meritage, to check on his guests, it’s inevitable that someone will stop him to gush, “This is my favorite restaurant,” to which he often replies dryly, “Sometimes it’s mine, too.”
In a consumer publication, we’d have to expound on that statement, maybe point out that he was kidding—sorta. But anyone who’s ever worked the line, paid their house payment or child’s braces on a restaurant’s thin margins or washed dishes on their wedding anniversary because the dishwasher was in an accident on the way to work knows that restaurants can be way too stressfully predictable at times, and even a bit mean.
“We’re part of so many people’s story,” Klein explains about Meritage. “Sometimes you have to remind yourself of that on days when it’s not so much fun to be here.”
His wife and business partner, Desta Klein—who was the one washing dishes on her ninth wedding anniversary—laughingly refers to the 10-year-old Meritage as their “beautiful beast.”
“A restaurant is like a child,” she points out. “You don’t get to decide when you’re a parent.” Parenting is 24/7.
Desta and Russell Klein seated at the bar
Ahh, but when that child is good, she’s very, very good. “We have more regular customers,” Desta says appreciatively. They have people who come in twice a week, and some who come in twice a day. Then there are the two doctors who faithfully drive up from Rochester twice a month to dine. They were among the first customers when the restaurant opened, and Desta laughs remembering they brought along their four little kids. The waitstaff assumed they would be cheap—until they ordered the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. It was a great lesson for the staff, she says—never judge a guest by the number of kids in the party.
Another remembrance was an 11-year-old girl who had her first fancy meal with her father at Meritage, and just returned with her college sweetheart to share the magical experience with him.
“We’ve hosted weddings here; receptions here because it’s where they had their first date,” Desta says, adding with a sly smile that the romantic atmosphere is responsible for many a baby being born nine months after the date of the reservation.
The Kleins hosted their own wedding reception in the space as well, back before they owned the restaurant. They were both working at WA Frost and Klein says he shared with management his desire to open his own restaurant and they decided to cut him loose immediately. In a show of solidarity, Desta quit as well. Earlier that day, she had mailed out their wedding invitations.
Because they could no longer afford to have both the wedding and reception at the Landmark Center, they moved the reception to the small French restaurant that occupied the dining room space of today’s Meritage.
When they returned from their honeymoon, the owner wanted to sell the restaurant to them. The original offer was too expensive. A few months later the restaurant went out of business, and they signed a lease. “It had great bones,” Desta says. On Labor Day of 2007, they were handed the keys, and they opened in November.
The two are able to successfully remain husband and wife and co-owners of the restaurant because they have defined roles. Klein handles the culinary vision and execution of it, and Desta, who does the financial/marketing/HR side and now the wine program, never crosses that “invisible line” between front of the house and back. They also have very complimentary personalities. Klein can appear to be a bit of a curmudgeon; opinionated, yes, but with forethought not froth. He’s clever, and best of all, immensely quotable. (When asked about one of his mentors, Jacques Pepin, he acknowledged how fortunate he was to have that connection and then added: “I believe I stand on the shoulders of chefs (all the way back) to Escoffier.”
A bouquet in the dining room.
Desta, on the other hand, is like the old friend you never knew you had until you start talking to her. On the day I showed up for the interview, camera in hand, she had no idea I was coming. A quick check with her husband in the kitchen, and she reported back that it was on his calendar, just not on hers. No problem. She ushered me to a back booth, set me up with something to drink and a menu and went off to put on lipstick and file the wine notes she had been working on.
The other pursuit that bonds the couple is their mutual love of traveling. While they visit all their purveyors, such as oyster farms and their foie gras provider in person, they particularly love visiting Europe. While they are past the prime age for backpacking Europe, Klein says they would rather spend their money on food and wine than fancy hotels. A trip to Switzerland recently spurred Desta to add a basket of blankets for diners on their patio that lines St. Peter Street, a nicety she saw the rows of tiny restaurants doing there.
Earlier trips to France helped hone their idea of what the vast majority of French restaurants are in France—unassuming, charming, and not always high end. Before opening their second restaurant, which also received high praise from critics, Brasserie Zentral in Minneapolis, they had taken a trip through Austria and Germany.
“Had we only gone south, we would have opened an Italian restaurant,” Klein quips, as Desta, adds, “I’m not sure that would have been the best idea either,” in reference to a number of notable Italian restaurants closing in Minneapolis recently. The Eastern European restaurant closed in January 2016, after a two-year run.
The $15 minimum wage issue in Minneapolis was just one of the reasons they decided to close it, Klein says. They both believe in livable wages, but believe a tip credit is missing in the math problem.
When a restaurant turns 10, there is no resting on its laurels. While there are always some dishes regulars demand stay on the menu—the chicken and matzo ball soup to name just two—Klein changes others seasonally. “I don’t change for the
customers as much as for the cooks,” he says. When you make the same dish 2,000 times, it’s hard to get excited about the 2,001st time. “I get bored. I eat here five days a week,” he says.
In summer they do a Tour de France menu, where they cook from the different regions. “It’s fun stuff for the kitchen,” he says. A world tour had him cooking Peking duck for the first time. This summer he bought a spit roaster, where they’ve
progressed from a whole chicken to a goat.
Both Klein and the restaurant have won honors: He’s a four-time James Beard Award semi-finalist for best chef Midwest, a Charlie Award winner twice and his restaurants have won numerous readers choice awards from local magazines, including best restaurant in St. Paul.
Ten years is a long time in the life of a restaurant these days, especially with the influx of chef-centric places. When Meritage first opened, being French wasn’t fashionable. “We weren’t far from ‘freedom fries’ when we started,” he says in reference to anti-French sentiments renaming French fries as "freedom."
What’s it take to succeed? “Constant vigilance,” he says. “Never take your eye off the ball.” And a mayor who wants to see businesses succeed, he adds.