29 March 2009

Saturday dinner with friends at Meritage, St. Paul

Sometimes people will ask me what’s my favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities. That’s a hard question to answer because it really depends on the occasion. I really like Barrio and Broder’s Pasta Bar and Al’s Breakfast, but all for different kinds of meals. So usually when I answer that question, I pick my favorite special occasion restaurants. Up until now, those have been Chambers Kitchen and Cue at the Guthrie. I understand that Cue is undergoing a renovation soon, and that it will have a new name and new menu. So for now, I probably will drop that from my list.

But I have a new one to add, and I’m really excited about it – Meritage. Are you shocked that I have a St. Paul restaurant on my favorite list? I am. But I don’t need any coaxing to cross the river for a dinner at Meritage, it’s that good!

First of all, the décor at Meritage is wonderful. It has a casual feel of a French bistro (the owner actually calls it a brasserie). A long wall of windows provides engaging views of historic downtown St. Paul. The windows also make the space feel expansive, almost like dining outdoors even on a chilly March evening.

Our server was prompt, friendly, and efficient. He checked right away to make sure we weren’t in a rush for a show or a concert. We weren’t. So he let us enjoy a relaxed, leisurely meal.

The menu at Meritage is fun and engaging. Besides a nice selection of soups, salads, and small plate starters, they offer several ‘amusements’ at the top of the menu. These are interesting and creative items, $3 apiece. We ordered two of the amusements and a plate of gnocchi from the starters.

One of the amusements was a tuna tartar taco. That turned out to be too small for four people to share. We really should have ordered two of them. My wife said her bite was a little spicy. Mine was not.

The second amusement was citrus cured mahi mahi. I expected a ceviche style dish. Instead, it was more like sushi. The plate had four or five thin slices of mahi; it was barely cured in the citrus. I thought it was very tasty, but my wife didn’t like it so much.

The gnocchi from the starters was my favorite. The menu called them ‘Parisian-style’ ricotta gnocchi. They seemed to have been browned in butter, so they had a little crust around the soft, creamy middle. They were served with arugula-walnut pesto and a tomato relish.

Before ordering entrées, we ordered another round of starters. From the amusement part of the menu, my wife had lobster bisque. It was probably about a quarter cup of a tasty soup, served in a cup about the size of my granddaughter’s play tea cup. It was served with a tiny little spoon of minced lobster meat. Another of our group had matzo ball soup. It was so good, we joked about ordering it takeout for the Passover seder coming up in two weeks. We also got an order of pomme frites to share. I thought they were good, but I didn’t really think they were that special, and with all the other food, we didn’t really need them.

For entrées, two of our group ordered the duck, which is a house specialty (at least on the winter menu). It consisted of a nice duck breast, seared and served with house-made duck sausage on a bed of braised red cabbage and spaetzel. The whole meal was a wonderful blend of complimentary and contrasting flavors.

I ordered the Saturday plat du jour – braised beef short ribs served with potato puree and vegetables. The beef was cooked to a fork-tender consistency and literally fell of the bones. The potatoes were rich and creamy. The vegetables consisted of baby carrots, baby parsnips, and green beans, barely cooked so that they were still crisp with plenty of crunch when I bit them.

The fourth entrée was probably the most creative. It was a ‘composition’ of winter vegetables. The plate included a celery root latke with apples and cauliflower ravioli. It also had a butternut squash Brule that was like a little crème Brule made with creamy, pureed squash. But the most unusual item for our group was parsnip cromesquis. I had no idea what that would be. Our server described it as being like a fried parsnip soup. I looked it up online while writing this review. A cromesquis is a technique of thickening a filling (like parsnip soup), then enclosing it in a breading. Then, when it’s fried or broiled, the filling melts. When you bite into it, you have the crunchy exterior and inside is … soup! It was amazing.

Like the dinner menu, the dessert menu offers little amusements as well. But by this time, we all were quite satisfied. So we ordered a three-scoop sampler of ice cream, an espresso, a cappuccino, and we called it an evening.

I would highly recommend Meritage, especially for a special dinner, and I won’t mind at all crossing the river for my next visit.

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