Whenever I’m asked what’s my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities, I answer Meritage in St. Paul. But lately I’ve started to consider that maybe Meritage’s younger sister in Minneapolis, Brasserie Zentral, might displace her as my No. 1 choice.
Both restaurants are the creations of Chef Russell Klein and his wife Desta. There are some family similarities – a commitment to fresh and top quality ingredients, elegant (though not stuffy) ambiance, masterful preparation and beautiful presentation. But while they share familial traits, they have distinctive personalities. Meritage is French. But the menu offers some playful riffs – matzo ball soup that’s so good some of our friends have considered serving at their Passover Seders or a duck liver ‘schmear’ that’s unlike any chopped liver appetizer I’ve ever eaten.
Zentral, on the other hand, is primarily Hungarian, Austrian, and northern Italian. It’s menu features things like sausages, spaetzle and dumplings, smoked fish, and schnitzel.
About every other week, I have a study group at an office downtown. It goes over the lunch hour, and when it ends at 1 p.m., I’m ready for lunch. I’ve tried Zentral for lunch a few times now. The first time I went, I had the burger. I was curious because the Star Tribune restaurant critic gave it such a glowing review. It was very good. But it was, after all, just a burger.
Since then, I’ve tried more of the ethnic specialties and I’ve enjoyed them much more. I think so far, my favorite was duck Bolognese on pappardella pasta. I also really liked the gnocchi with lamb ragout and braised red cabbage.
On my most recent visit, my brother and I met for lunch to celebrate our birthdays. For this special lunch, I did make a reservation and did indicate that it was a birthday lunch. Each time that I’ve eaten at Zentral, I chose a seat at the chef’s counter, looking into the gleaming and bustling kitchen. Mike and I sat there as well. When we were seated, our server brought a complimentary glass of sparking wine to celebrate our birthdays. Nice!
One of my brother’s co-workers had recommended schnitzel. Mike was tempted by the duck Bolognese, but ultimately opted for the schnitzel. He enjoyed it, and I thought it looked very good. I haven’t ordered schnitzel so far because it just sounded like a piece of breaded meat. But the presentation was so appealing that I think I will try it on some future visit.
I ordered chicken paprikash. The chicken was braised and was so moist and tender it fell off the bones. It was served with rye bread dumplings and stewed peppers. It was fantastic.
My chicken and Mike’s schnitzel were bigger meals than any of the previous lunches I’ve had there. They easily were big enough to be dinner entrées.
So you might be wondering, since I liked Zentral so much for these several lunches, why any hesitation about saying it’s my new favorite? The answer is dinner.
My wife and I have had dinner there once with another couple. The food was great. But the service was poor. I can’t figure out why, since the service at lunch always had been great, at least for me. But other online reviewers, including Zentral’s own Facebook page, have complained about slow and inattentive service. And I recognize that things often can be different between a lunch experience and dinner. Even within the family, lunch at Meritage is different than dinner there.
So we’re going to go back for dinner sometime. After I do, we’ll see. I may be changing my best restaurant recommendation.