The Kitchen Insider series gives Heavy Table readers a peek at the personality and processes of well-known kitchens around town.
The five-person Meritage kitchen team stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the tight quarters as the pre-theater tickets come rushing in. A quick word from Chef Russell Klein and the team springs to action. Large white dishes are pulled onto the counter; meats and vegetables are carefully plated.
Back and forth the staff moves between the prep counter and ovens. The expansive stovetop becomes cluttered with pots and pans.
On the opposite side of the service window, waitstaff anxiously gather, ready to sweep plates away to the awaiting tables.
It’s difficult to imagine a busier kitchen than this Thursday night rush — the galley kitchen is already bursting with activity at the current volume — but Chef Klein asserts that the weekend pre-theater rush is even busier. Meritage’s accessible location near St. Paul’s Ordway ensures that every seat of the restaurant’s intimate dining room is filled.
The French menu changes seasonally and often features local produce like Riverbend Farm’s vegetables in the panzanella salad. In addition to seasonal items, there are numerous mainstays such as mussels, roast chicken, steak, and pork. In Klein’s hands, even conventional items have engaging twists — for example, the hamburger, which is topped with port-braised shallots.
Before entrees, a playful way to start the meal is with an amusement — tiny, two-bite dishes for $3. The tiny tuna taco tartare amuses the palate with a crispy-fried taro root chip set atop a bed of shredded carrot.
“This [octopus salad] is our most popular octopus dish,” Klein explains. The octopus is lightly braised then finished on the grill paired with fresno chiles and corn salad.
As he plates the wild sea bass, Klein talks about the salmon featured on the menu. “Sous vide allows us to save space in the kitchen,” he says, and points to the small tank tucked into a corner. But better than just a space-saver, sous vide produces a silky smooth salmon that contrasts perfectly with the earthy spinach puree and crispy fried potatoes.
More kitchen bustling produces a rush of orders and oysters on the half shell, sole en papillote, and composition plates of summer vegetables are sent out of the kitchen.
“What is that smell?” I ask of Klein, as he finishes a seafood dish on the stove.
“This?” he asks, as he waves the skillet in my direction. Wafts of butter, thyme, and garlic hit my nose and I nod in confirmation.
“We finish many dishes this way,” he says.
Pure music to this food lover’s ears.