Russell and Desta Klein joke that they met in the middle. Russell grew up in New York, Desta in the Pacific Northwest; they met working at St. Paul restaurant W.A. Frost. In 2007, they held their wedding reception at a downtown restaurant with huge vaulted ceilings, views of the historic city center and an Old World feel. “Six months later, we ended up with the space, building Meritage within the place that we celebrated our wedding,” Desta says.
St. Paul may keep a lower profile than Minneapolis (“We’re the Brooklyn of the Twin Cities,” Russell quips), but it’s booming in its own right. Meritage is smack in the middle of the action, surrounded by concert venues, museums and the hockey stadium. “We serve suits to jerseys, we like to say,” Desta laughs. “We have the pretty wild crowd that come in for burgers and beer, and then we have operagoers in gowns and suits. That’s the beautiful part about a French brasserie: It’s always been intended to be the meeting place in an urban environment for people who are traveling in all sorts of different directions.”
Desta oversees the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning Francophile wine list. Russell, who studied with Jacques Pépin, serves a menu of French classics. On the origin of the salmon with melted leeks and beurre blanc shown here, Russell credits the long arc of the French culinary tradition as much as himself. “I feel like it’s a part of the French lexicon,” he says, “and it’s a really good wine dish.”
And not just any wine. Desta’s mind went right to the coveted whites of the Burgundian village of Meursault. “There’s this succulence [to the dish] that calls for some oak exposure to the Chardonnay, and there’s also a heavy mineral quality in a fish like salmon. For me, Meursault is one of those more bold regions that does know how to wield oak and wield it well.” But Meursault can be pricey, so she opted for Colin Barollet Bourgogne Blanc 2017, which is made in a similar style to Meursault, from vineyards just outside the village bounds. The terroir is there, but the price is not.
Since its founding a dozen years ago, Meritage has taken on a life of its own. One couple that met there sewed the Kleins a thank-you quilt. A staff member did a cross-stitch of the restaurant logo. The city council passed a resolution acknowledging the restaurant’s significance to St. Paul. “The pleasure of owning a place like Meritage is that we’re part of other people’s stories too,” Desta says. “We’re stewards of something that’s bigger than us.” She pauses and adds, “It’s been a wild ride.”
As eminently available as it is fundamentally forgiving, the humble salmon fillet can be a great jumping-off point for trying a new technique or two. Here, Klein shares his recipe for a French-inspired salmon dinner, plus cooking tips to help you avoid soggy fish skin and nail a classic French sauce.
- Crisping your salmon skin shall set you free. “Soggy salmon skin just really isn’t very appealing. But when salmon skin is crispy, it’s really enjoyable to eat,” Klein notes. “Cooking the salmon properly to achieve a crispy skin is a skill that, once you’ve mastered that, you can really take that technique and apply it to lots of different fish that are maybe a little bit less forgiving than the salmon is.”
- But don’t go overboard. “The biggest thing is, don’t overcook it,” Klein warns. “As long as you have really high-quality fish, undercooked is better than overcooked.”
- Beurre blanc may sound fancy, but it’s really just a matter of whisking. And boy, is it good. Typically composed of white wine, shallots, acid from either white-wine vinegar or lemon juice, and a whole bunch of butter, this classic French sauce is an emulsion whose main enemy is overheating, which can cause the sauce to “break,” separating into liquid and solids. Klein’s version adds a splash of cream, which acts kind of like training wheels, helping you to stabilize the mixture and lower the possibility that your emulsion will break. But you should still keep an eye on the heat, Klein cautions. “Basically, you want the flame to be high enough to melt the butter, but not much higher than that.”
- Don’t toss that butter wrapper. Once you finish making the beurre blanc, you’ll have a velvety sauce that you’ll want to keep warm while you cook the salmon. Klein likes to pop it on the back of the stove, away from any active burners, before covering it. “What works really well is the wax paper wrapping that the butter comes in,” he suggests. (You can also use plastic wrap and poke a hole in it so some steam can escape.) “You can make that sauce and have it ready to go, warm on the back of your stove, and then you can cook your salmon and it’s just there,” he counsels.
Pairing Tip: Why Chardonnay Works with This Dish
This salmon calls for a rich white with fine minerality. A good white Burgundy or tastefully oaked California Chardonnay wins the day, with citrus fruit flavors to pick up the hint of lemon in the beurre blanc.
Chef’s Pick Colin Barollet Bourgogne Blanc 2017
Wine Spectator Picks Thierry & Pascale Matrot Meursault 2017 (90, $68)
Cambria Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Katherine’s Vineyard 2017 (91, $22)
Crispy Salmon with Melted Leeks & Beurre Blanc
Recipe courtesy of chef Russell Klein and tested by Wine Spectator’s Hilary Sims.
For the leeks:
- 3 to 4 pounds (about 3 large) leeks
- 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
- 1 sprig thyme
- 4 sprigs parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon chopped thyme
- Salt and white pepper
For the beurre blanc:
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon minced shallot
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cubed
- Salt and white pepper
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon lemon juice
For the salmon:
- 4 skin-on salmon fillets, 6 ounces each
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons canola oil or your favorite neutral cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (reserved in separate halves)
- 1 tablespoon minced shallot (reserved in separate halves)
- 1 teaspoon chopped thyme (reserved in separate halves)
- Salt and white pepper
1. Trim the leeks of their dark green outer leaves; these can be used for stocks or discarded. Halve leeks lengthwise, then slice 1/8-inch thick. Place leeks in a bowl of cold water and agitate, letting any dirt sink to the bottom. Repeat if needed. Drain and lightly pat dry. (It’s OK if some moisture remains.)
2. Using kitchen twine, tie the thyme, parsley sprigs and bay leaf into a bouquet garni. In a medium saucepot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and season with salt and a bit of pepper. Add the bouquet garni. Stir the leeks to coat in butter, turn heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very tender, about 45 minutes. Add the chopped thyme and salt to taste. The leeks can be made in advance and reheated.
3. Place the wine and shallot in a small saucepot. Boil until the wine is reduced to 1 to 2 tablespoons. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, let sit for 1 minute, and whisk in 1 cube butter. Return the pot to stovetop over low heat. Add 1 cube butter at a time, whisking constantly to form a smooth emulsion. Do not allow the sauce to boil. Once an emulsion has formed, you can add the butter a few cubes at a time, continuing to whisk constantly. When all the butter is incorporated, season with salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. You can strain the shallots out or leave them in for texture. Set aside in a warm but not hot place, covered.
4. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Pat the skin of the salmon fillets dry. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Place an oven-safe nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Dust the skin side of 2 fillets with the flour. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil to the hot pan and immediately add the 2 floured fillets, skin-side down. Lower heat to medium and cook for about 4 minutes, until the skin begins to brown. Transfer skillet to the oven and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the flesh begins to turn opaque. Return the skillet to the stove and add half the butter, shallot and thyme. When the butter has begun to melt, tip the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish with the cooking liquid for about 30 seconds. Flip the salmon and “kiss” the flesh side to the pan for about 10 seconds, then transfer to a warm plate and cover loosely. Carefully wipe out the skillet and repeat this step with the remaining 2 fillets.
6. Place a generous 1/2 cup of melted leeks in the center of each plate. Place the salmon on the leeks and pour beurre blanc around the fish. Serves 4.