Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Pity the grown-up restaurant-goer in the Twin Cities these last few years. The Great Recession turned the city into a hotbed of adventurous tacos, food trucks, microbreweries, rooftop patios, and $12 cocktails. Soaring real estate prices redid restaurant math so that 200-seat restaurants sharing a single space with a 100-seat bar became the new normal. Loud? Loud became part of the formula. I’ve heard restaurant insiders explain: People complain about a loud restaurant, but a loud restaurant never closes. Meanwhile, as all of life becomes more casual, the few islands of life that aren’t seem to provoke more anxiety—I was dismayed recently when Googling the phone number of La Belle Vie to have it autofill “La Belle Vie jacket required.” (Answer: Of course not, no jacket required. Also: You look fantastic when you get all gussied up. Treat yourself!) Is this informal, beery, loud taco world the revenge of Generation Y—saddled with staggering student debt and stagnant wages, they burn the world of white tablecloths in cold revenge? Well, don’t call this chapter in Twin Cities dining closed; we now have Brasserie Zentral, the most grown-up restaurant to open in Minneapolis in a decade.
Brasserie Zentral is grown-up in all sorts of ways. It’s in a grown-up building, the posh former Soo Line Railroad headquarters (designed by the same architect who created the Vanderbilt mansion that’s now the Cartier store in New York). It has a grown-up chef: New York–trained, James Beard Award–nominated Russell Klein, whose St. Paul French-inspired restaurant Meritage has been one of the best in the state since it opened in 2007. It has a grown-up wine list by Nicolas Giraud, Meritage’s longtime sommelier, who has created the best white wine list in the history of Minneapolis, with abundant selections of mineral Austrian grüner veltliners, spätlese German rieslings, and honeyed Hungarian Tokaji. But does anyone even know what that means? In a world that’s entirely literate in pork belly tacos, does anyone have any thought for Tokaji?
Well, here’s a quick refresher: Tokaji was the world’s first appellation-controlled wine, regarded more highly 400 years ago than port or Bordeaux. It was the favorite tipple of the various King Louis who served it in court at Versailles; they picked up the habit from their rivals and pals, the Holy Roman emperors. Those emperors, of course, were the folks who ruled most of Germany, Austria, Italy, eastern France, Bohemia (which included what is today the Czech Republic). The Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806 because of that short guy who ushered in the era of canned food, Napoleon. Have things been going downhill ever since? No one can say, as we never got to taste pre-Napoleonic appetizers, but the heart and soul of the food at Brasserie Zentral traces to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had some good eats. So does Brasserie Zentral.
The duck consommé, for instance, is a silky rapture of clear broth set with three feather-light and duck-rich duck-liver dumplings, gossamer and melting. The butter-braised white asparagus with the softest imaginable scrambled eggs, champagne sauce, and a scoop of black caviar is knee-weakening, and it seems fit not for Minneapolis life, but for the ermine-bedecked table in some turreted European castle. The foie gras terrine, set with genuine Tokaji wine aspic, is textbook perfection, all roses, apricots, and primal thrum, and it should be on the bucket list of any carnivore who wants to experience the height of European cuisine for 500 years running. (Put it next to a glass of Tokaji, starting at a very reasonable $14, or if you’re feeling perfectly royal, there’s a 2004 Ch. d’Yquem on the menu at $55 an ounce. Sure, that’s pricey, but not as pricey as the 1811 bottle of d’Yquem that sold a few years ago for 75,000 pounds.)
Brasserie Zentral is not all haute like that; it boasts quieter pleasures too. At lunch, the open-faced sandwich of house-smoked salmon is as good as salmon at lunch gets—glassy, lush, creamy, perfectly offset by a light cucumber salad and toasted housemade rye. The soft pretzel in the bar is the best in town, with a doughy heft and the authentic old-fashioned tongue prickle that only comes with a real traditional dip into lye. The French fries are glorious, double-cooked dark and earthily real—a must-try for anyone missing the frites of Belgium or the Netherlands. (Add a beer from the excellent list of unusual imports and stare out the window at the trains running by—blink and you’d think you’re in Rotterdam.)
There’s a spaghetti and speck dish with green onions, which is as simple, salty, and satisfying as any version of spaghetti carbonara, the tendrils of prosciutto-like speck winding through the pasta and creating meadow-like harmonies with the fresh onions. The veal and turkey schnitzel hold first and second place for the best schnitzel in the history of Minneapolis. It’s feather-light, the batter souffled around the meat like a hot air balloon. Vegetable holishkes are a familiar comfort food to anyone who grew up with an Eastern European grandma. Here the cabbage rolls are stuffed with chewy kamut wheat berries, with a sweet and sour sauce both sweeter and sourer than any I’ve ever had before, and made glamorous with a scattering of the bright blossoms of flowers.
Why would a chef spend his time scattering cabbage rolls with fine blossoms, when clearly the money is in noisy cocktail emporia? Because to hell with modern trends, chef Russell Klein tells me. “I fell in love with this food when I was cooking at Danube,” Klein says, referring to New York City’s important but now defunct David Bouley restaurant. “And a lot of this food is important to me—like kasha varnishkas.” (Klein does an elevated version of the classic Jewish German comfort food, using mushrooms such as enoki and chanterelles and chicken fat along with the classic combination of noodles, onions, and buckwheat.)
“But I wanted to do a real restaurant. For adults who want to have a conversation and hear each other. A lot of us are sick of going out to eat and not being able to talk to the people we’re with. Ultimately, isn’t the restaurant about the person you’re with? Your birthday, anniversary, business dinner, friend? It’s not about me. F--- the chef.”
Which is a funny thing for a chef to say about himself, and it’s contrary to the efforts of someone who has clearly pulled out all the stops reaching for the stars—and hiring them. For instance, don’t miss the work of one of the best pastry chefs in the cities, Niki Francioli (since departed for La Belle Vie), who created a divinely classic apple strudel and a joyful and sheerly delightful coffee pot de crème. The cocktails, by a team including Trish Gavin, are on par with any in Minneapolis. Try the Früeling Negroni for a subtle and fragrant take on the classic.
Service is of the most traditional sort, deferent and quiet but Johnny-on-the-spot with an ever-present offer of a fresh roll proffered with silver tongs from the fresh-baked bread basket. The dining room itself is all rich wood, golden light, low ceilings, and quiet music. That is, it’s very grown-up. It’s a place and a pleasure meant for adults who have something to say and know a thing or two about life, food, wine, and all that. A rare joy: an adult pleasure for an adult audience.
505 Marquette Ave. S., Mpls., 612-333-0505, zentral-mpls.com