Editor’s Note: Brasserie Zentral is now closed.
The phrase “fine dining” is like a gated wall: it tends to exclude and alienate. It’s suggestive of fuss and pretense, of gluttonous richness and high prices. And more often than not, it’s suggestive of bad hospitality — a select few diners treated like royalty at the expense of anyone else who might stop by looking for a good meal and friendly surroundings.
It’s a pity that the phrase has fallen on hard times, because there’s a happier side to that coin: the fine dining restaurant as home to refined culinary technique, to the adventurous exploration of flavor tempered by wisdom and sense, to knowledgeable and friendly staff who put the “hospitable” back into “hospitality.” It’s the sort of experience diners are accustomed to at Russell and Desta Klein’s French-inspired St. Paul restaurant Meritage, and it’s what they’ll experience at the Kleins’ ambitious new restaurant, Brasserie Zentral.
A typical meal at a typical good restaurant features food that clocks in at a reasonably high baseline, and then peaks in one or two moments when the diner’s eyes roll reflexively back in their heads and speech becomes difficult. Our visits to Brasserie Zentral were an unbroken series of those peaks. Not quite two weeks old, Zentral is white hot, serving what may well be the best food in the city of Minneapolis.
With nods to both the rustic and the immaculately polished, Zentral’s food channels the cuisine of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire was a place that wrapped its arms around both the urbane dining traditions of the Austrians and the wholesome and vibrant peasant cuisine of the Balkans and Hungary. “The one, cosmopolitan and cultured,” writes Joseph Wechsberg in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, “looked to the West for its nourishment, to Paris and the great world capitals, the world of the salon, the logical thought, the mot; the other with its folklore and peasant art, its occult customs and taboos, its mysticism, faced East, fed by the ancient wisdom that a man may know deep within himself, a life based not on books but on an oral tradition handed down from father to son.”
From a marketing perspective, opening a big new restaurant pegged to this bygone place and time is a ballsy move. The menu isn’t tapas-inspired. It’s not street food gone fancy, it’s not izakaya, it’s not even explicitly farm-to-table, although local food asserts its presence on the menu and even more so on the plate.
But the concept smoothly articulates itself in dishes like the Honey & Lemon Thyme Glazed Breast of Minnesota Duck ($29). Served with creamy salsify-horseradish, roasted beets, and duck crackling dumplings that suggest a Central European twist on bao, this dish is less an entree than a landscape, an undulating relief map of flavor. At the center, of course, is the duck. Duck is one of the true tests of a restaurant with pretenses to fine dining. Go to many (or most) hotel restaurants, and you’ll get sad, hapless duck: rubbery or greasy or tough, or otherwise miserable and undercooked. This fatty bird takes technique. The chefs of Brasserie Zentral have technique, and their duck is a prince among its peers: rich and tender with a perfectly seasoned crispy skin.
We also enjoyed an order of pork cheeks braised in Maibock beer with potato goulash, escarole, and lovage ($25). At the risk of being repetitive, many of the same adjectives apply: rich, tender, balanced, ideally seasoned, with the various elements of the dish complementing one another, in balance and happy to share a plate.
White Asparagus Cream Soup ($10) comes with shaved green asparagus and hazelnut, and looks inconspicuous on the menu. Don’t miss it — it’s a creamy, foamy, decadent treat. We mopped up every last molecule of this exquisite soup with our bread.
And coming on the heels of a satanically unpleasant winter, the Fresh Cheese & Spring Nettle Tortelloni ($9 or $14 for a full plate) were a breath of fresh air, seemingly featherlight and infused with the rocket fuel-strength taste of spring peas and brown butter. We could’ve eaten a hundred of these little guys and then happily died on the spot.
Many of the dishes at Zentral are gorgeous to look at it, but there isn’t any of the strained foam-based showboating that has become standard modern fare. Beauty is in service to taste, form in service to function. Case in point is the menu’s foie gras section.
Actually, let’s let that sink in for a moment. There is a foie gras section on the restaurant menu, powered by the lovely and ethically raised foie of Au Bon Canard (which we profiled in these pages). Foie is a celebration food. You can’t phone it in — it’s precious, and fussy, and powerful stuff. The Seared Foie Gras ($23) comes with a savory, nicely astringent rhubarb with streusel and shaved rhubarb salad that doesn’t smother the liver with sweetness, but rather draws out and balances its flavor.
The Trio of Bite Sized Foie Gras ($12) is one of the most entertaining and inventive things we’ve eaten this side of Haute Dish. The foie macaroon was spot on, delicately crispy on the outside, chewy and rich on the inside, and both the brulee and torchon were sweet and lovely as well. Our server told us that another group of diners had ordered this trio for dessert (after having it as an appetizer during the same meal). This seemingly insane decision makes sense — there’s as much sweet as savory going on here.
And the restaurant’s Layers of Foie Gras & Ahi Tuna Inspired by Le Bernadin ($18) is showstopper. The presentation is striking: a glistening medallion of thinly sliced tuna sitting on a foie-smeared paper thin wafer of phyllo, and the gentle, texture-driven experience of eating the thing was by itself worth the trip downtown.
Finally, if you’re feeling daffy, there’s a whole roasted foie gras served with seasonal fruit preserves that serves 8-10 people. It’s $200. We hope to try it on a future visit.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Brasserie Zentral is that while the restaurant is rooted in traditional techniques, it brings some truly new flavors to the table. Take the Paprika-Cured Spanish Mackerel ($16). Served with caraway cream, kohlrabi-lime, and mint, this sashimi-by-way-of-Hungary starter is like nothing we’ve ever eaten before — the cool clean flavor of the fish and cream is balanced by the warming spice of the house-made paprika. (When we chatted with Chef Klein about his paprika, he explained that nothing matches the kick of grinding the stuff fresh, so Zentral is working with Riverbend Farm of Delano, MN to produce the necessary peppers. 100 pounds of peppers becomes 10 pounds of the precious red spice, a supply that is fast dwindling but soon to be renewed.)
In between bites of your impeccably prepared food, you may open your eyes long enough to notice the throng of people in the kitchen at Brasserie Zentral. The space teems with life — a whirlwind of prepping, cooking, expediting, and serving, visible evidence that while Russell Klein is the name behind the establishment, Zentral is a team effort, with many hands going into preparing the elaborate and often complicated dishes that dominate its menu. It’s a testament to Klein’s skill as a team leader that the first night we ate at Zentral, he was working over at Meritage — and the food was absolutely spot on, point for point.
Serious diners will appreciate the meticulous approach that a talented team can bring to this sort of food. Seasoning levels are correct; textures are lovely and contrasting; sauces are rich and bold and fresh-tasting; all the little details that make all the difference have been attended to, and the results are evident on the plate.
With all that said, we now sing the praises of the humblest dish on the menu: the Spaghetti and Speck ($10 / $16 for a large portion). This bowl of noodles and cured ham with green onion, pecorino, and poppyseeds may at first glance appear to be a bit of a bumpkin compared to halibut strudel or veal schnitzel, but oh, what a rich, soothing, comforting bowl of food it is. We’ll order it again. And again.
That’s the food. The drink is lovely as well, from a well-rounded tap beer selection, to long and intriguing list of European-focused wines, to some top-notch cocktails. The Old Republic ($11) is a notable success: a honey-kissed twist on an Old Fashioned with a lovely note of citrus.
As is appropriate for a restaurant that evokes one of the world’s proudest pastry traditions, dessert is not to be missed at Brasserie Zentral. Our favorite was the Caramel Coffeehaus Cream ($8) which was velveteen and powerful without becoming a smear of sugar, and was served with an Earl Gray macaroon that ranks among the best we’ve eaten for its texture and deeply flavored but perfectly balanced filling.
If Brasserie Zentral’s interpretation of the phrase “everything old is new again” means that fine dining is going to take on its former grandeur, we’re ready to party like it’s 1899. Its union of classic technique and innovative flavor makes for an unforgettable culinary voyage.
Austro-Hungarian-inspired fine dining in downtown Minneapolis
505 Marquette Ave S, Minneapolis 55402
OWNERS / CHEF: Russell and Desta Klein / Russell Klein
RESERVATIONS/RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $16-50
PARKING: Downtown ramps nearby
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No