Dining in the Twin Cities Before and After the Super Bowl By John Mariani

MERITAGE

410 St. Peter Street

St. Paul

651-222-5670

Meritage--a union of “merit” and “heritage”--looks very close to a true Parisian brasserie, modern while wearing its original 1919 décor well. Chef Russell Klein and his wife, Wine Director Desta Maree (below) are celebrating the restaurant’s tenth anniversary, their success owed not just to the quality of food but to the comfort and cosseting guests receive upon arrival, during dinner and at departure. It is palpable that the Kleins love what they do. And Russell's training at New York’s La Caravelle and Bouley is evident in every dish.

It’s a beautiful space, beginning with an oyster bar and moving into a high-ceilinged room with tilted mirrors, tile floors, an effusion of flowers, and lantern chandeliers, the kind of place to celebrate something as much as a favorite spot you go to when you need a bistro-fare fix.

Dish after dish emerging from the kitchen had exactly the right look that revered French classics should have, but more important were the superb flavors involved, from an intense onion soup gratinée ($12.50) as good as any I’ve had in Paris to a shooter of billi bi ($4), a creamy saffron-scented mussel soup not much seen on menus any more but deserving of a return to eminence.

I then moved on to impeccably cooked, juicy sturgeon roasted in duck fat with sweetbreads, celeriac, wild mushrooms, apple and a beautiful red wine reduction ($37). Then came another French classic that was once ubiquitous on menus and is now in recession: Tournedos Rossini, that over-the-top layering of rare filet mignon with seared Minnesota foie gras in a lush Madeira sauce and a shower of black truffles. Klein’s version ($68) revived in me everything that made it so wonderful in the first place. You might as well also order the piping hot frites ($9.50) and share them at the table.

For dessert the almond sponge-and-chocolate opera cake is the way to go.

One of the great joys of my job is finding places like Meritage where I least expect them, so that I can say with little fear of contradiction, this is easily one of the finest French restaurants in the United States.

TILIA

2726 West 43rd Street

Minneapolis

612-354-2806 Photos by Bill Phelps

On my first bitter cold night in Minneapolis, this warm, 50-seat gastro-pub was just what I needed, a place to slump into a booth and chat with owner-chef Steven Brown about the food scene in town, which is thriving in the casual sector, where price is a prime consideration.

Tilia’s success has as much to do with its drop-in atmosphere and very friendly young staff as with a menu aiming to please a wide range of people, from those who just come for a cheeseburger—a towering edifice with tiger sauce mayo, griddled onions, cheese and dill pickles ($13)—and a local beer called Surly, to those who begin with a striped bass crudo with avocado, pistachio and lime ($15) and a delicious, creamy chicken liver mousse with a fried baguette ($10) and a bottle of wine.

Sadly, Tilia has no liquor license, but it does have a dream list of well-chosen wines under $70, with a multitude by the glass.

The best of the pastas I tried were plump agnolotti stuffed with butternut squash, sage, sorghum and blue cheese ($25), but I winced at Brown’s sprinkling fennel pollen on that simplest of Roman pastas, cacio e pepe ($19). Most of all I liked the pan-roasted chicken thighs, a nice meaty portion, that retained its pan juices, along with polenta, baby onions, olives and the sweetness of figs ($27). The desserts ($7-$9) —butterscotch pot de crème, honey cake with crisp apple, and a chocolate tart with pretzel, smoked salt and caramel—were perfect for a freezing night when you want to linger at Tilia as long as you can.

ZEN BOX IZAKAYA

602 Washington Avenue South

Minneapolis

612-332-3936

Minneapolis hasn’t a heck of a lot of good restaurants open for lunch, so it’s easy enough to see why Zen Box Izikaya is always full. Beyond its convenience, however—and it’s near U.S. Bank Stadium—the real draw is the tantalizing Japanese and Asian food and the engaging personalities of wife-and-husband owners Lina Goh and John Ng, who opened Zen Box in 2012 with a riot of colors, Japanese calligraphy and Japanese toys arrayed along the counter.

Lina is out front, greeting, coaxing, making sure you’re happy, and John and his crew are turning out a broad menu that ranges from excellent tuna poke ($11.50) and a ramen box ($13-$14) to all kinds of novel ideas like avocado tempura with a spicy mayo ($8) and fabulous Korean-style short ribs with skewered tofu ($6). One of the most rightly popular dishes is the chasu yaki ($8.50), a bowl of thick, succulent pork belly with onions and ponzu sauce.

Everything is beautifully and colorfully presented and most dishes can happily be shared; the low prices mean you can order up a storm with friends and still not feel light in the wallet. It would be easy enough to eat at Zen Box twice a week and it might still take a month to work your way through the entire menu. And every time you come through the door, Lina will be there to welcome you back.

SAINT DINETTE

261 East 5th Street

St. Paul

651-800-1415

Located in what’s called Lowertown, Saint Dinette is devoted largely to a small plate menu, though, as you might imagine, plates in Minnesota are quite a bit larger than they might be on the coasts. And the ingredients themselves are gathered largely from the region from the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes to the Mississippi and down to Louisiana by Chef Adam Eaton.

One of the best dishes I had all last year was the bone marrow, which of itself is a nice idea but by adding corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese ($12) to it, it becomes a tantalizingly delicious concept (above). There is so much on the menu that delivers big flavors, from tender octopus with patatas bravas, piquillo peppers and the acidic bite of aïoli ($14) to first-rate fried chicken—Nashville style, but not overpoweringly hot ($18)--with crisp skin that doesn't fall off the meat. Have a well-made cocktail and nibble on the charred shishito peppers (below) made like a Caesar salad with bonito flakes ($8). The pappardelle combines with a lusty venison and wild boar ragù ($15). The Midwestern staple of bologna and American cheese and pickles is cute idea but not a very savory one ($11).

The welcome-back cream cheese-frosted carrot cake ($8) was a delight and not overly sweet. Then again, who'd argue with the suggestion of flapjacks with vanilla butter and Canadian maple syrup ($8) for dessert?

From the outside, through tall windows, Saint Dinette looks like a place to have a fine meal without fuss. The decor is minimal, semi-industrial and gray, but the sunlight at daytime and shadows at night give it a duality of style and ambiance. Inside the care taken by manager Laurel Elm and owner-partner Tim Niver make this a place you’ll tell others about and want to bring them back to.

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