Meritage II (St. Paul, MN)


For the second weekend in a row it seemed like our plans to eat an outdoor meal at a fancy restaurant would be spiked by the weather. You may recall that we tried to eat at Colita the weekend before last but the forecasted rain (which did show up) led to the reservations on their patio being cancelled that morning. (Don’t feel too bad for us: we ended up under the awning on Andale’s patio and ate very well.) Undaunted by this damp outcome I made reservations for the missus’ birthday dinner at Meritage, whose website lists a terrace. Now I couldn’t remember a terrace from the last time we ate there—it turns out they use the word “terrace” for what I would call “the sidewalk in front of the restaurant”. But this is not the season for semantics. Winter is coming and we will take whatever opportunities for outdoor dining as present themselves. As the week went on I checked the forecast every day. Wouldn’t you know it, by Thursday there was rain predicted for the exact time of our reservation. Not wanting a last minute cancellation, I called the restaurant on Friday to see what kind of shelter they might have on their “terrace” and was reassured to be told that our table was under an awning and it would probably take a major thunderstorm for there to be any issues. To be safe, I moved our reservation from 8 pm to 7.15 pm. I am happy to say that there was no cancellation call on Saturday morning. Here is how the evening went.

After enduring the pain of hunting for parking in the vicinity of Meritage we arrived at the restaurant to find the friends we were dining with already seated. But…they were seated at a table decidedly not under an awning or any other kind of shelter, and there was a noticeable drizzle falling from the sky onto all our persons. I went in and had a chat with the hostess and soon enough a number of staff emerged and hoisted a large “tent” like thingy over a number of the exposed tables. After all this we were given a four-top that had been sitting free under the awning all along. Of course, once all this was sorted the drizzle stopped completely and there were no more signs of rain for the rest of our meal. And it ended up being very nice outside. We also noted some large heaters out there—that would suggest that outdoor dining at Meritage will continue to be a go for a good while yet. I should note as well that the staff offered all guests attractive red blankets to wrap themselves in if cold (one of our party availed herself of a blanket).

What did we eat and drink once the drama of seating was over?

First, cocktails for three of us (the fourth is a teetotaler). My Sidecar D’Automne was very tasty indeed (basically a Sidecar with Calvados); the missus’ L’Esprit Épicé was likewise excellent, featuring cucumber-infused vodka with various other things and a sprig of rosemary floating on top. Our friend got the Spaulding (featuring limoncello and vodka), listed along with some other cocktails on a different menu for some reason, and liked that as well. Later in the meal I got a second cocktail, the Meritage Manhattan (made with Cognac in place of the bourbon); it was fine.

The food: to start we got a range of things. The missus had really enjoyed their Escargot Bourguignon on our previous visit and got that again. She liked it fine this time. One of our friends got their Soupe du Jour which turned out to be matzoh ball soup. Now, Meritage is known for their matzoh ball soup but the thing about ordering matzoh ball soup at a fine restaurant is that while you don’t want any cheffy nonsense done to it—which it’s not here—there’s no escaping that you’ve ended up ordering matzoh ball soup at a fine restaurant. But the person who ate almost all of it enjoyed it anyway. The third got the Crab Louie and liked it a lot. He was a lot less enthusiastic about the Teeny Tiny Tuna Tartare Taco featured on the “Amusements” section. I got three Hama Hama oysters and three littleneck clams on the half shell and the shot-sized Billi Bi Saffron-Mussel soup (also on the “Amusements” list and no, I don’t know what the name means). Neither of the shellfish wowed particularly but I quite liked the soup, which disappeared in two sips.

For the mains, the missus got the All-Natural Steak Frites. Her hanger steak was done just right and the frites were rather good. One of our friends got the Moules Frites and enjoyed that very much too. The third got the Cherry Glazed Magret Breast of Duck (with escarole, potatoes etc.) and enjoyed it very much as well. I got the Roasted King Salmon served atop corn salad with a few shrimp and trace amounts of crab. Now the salmon was cooked perfectly and the other stuff on the plate complemented it well but I have to say that if you are going to charge $44 for a piece of salmon I think you really should take care to wipe off the coagulated albumin from the sides of the fish before sending it out. Am I being picky?

Sweet things to end: the missus and I split an order of the Gateau Opera; our friends split an order of the Creme Brulee. Both were very good.

For a look at the food and the restaurant launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, to see how much it all cost and for my estimation of whole relative to price.

The harried start to the evening notwithstanding, service was excellent over the course of the evening: our server was patient, present and professional. I will say that when we had a question at the very end about an item on the check—the Full Service Hospitality Fee—a separate staff member who we asked about it had no idea and told us she thought it was an up-charge for premium ingredients in the cocktails! It turned out to be an additional fee that goes to other members of the staff. Now we had no objection to paying this but I wonder if it might not be better to just build this into the prices on the menu. Our first guess had been that it was a portion of the expected gratuity and there’s a more inebriated version of the evening in which we might have stiffed our excellent server a portion of the gratuity.

Then again, Meritage’s prices are already on the high side—rent in that building cannot be cheap—and they may be wary of increasing them further. The meal could certainly have been a lot more expensive even without more wine: there’s a steak option at $60 and on the night there was a lamb special that sounded rather good but whose price I’m grateful I asked for as it turned out to be $58 (though it did make me feel better about my $44 salmon). I will say that at almost $100/head with tax, fees and tip it felt a little bit too expensive for what the meal was (and we only had four drinks between us). But this is also the median price seemingly in the Twin Cities nowadays for a fine dining meal without a lot of alcohol. We’ve certainly paid more at some places (and as much at places that are doubtless paying far less in rent—see Joan’s in the Park). But there are fewer and fewer adult restaurants left seemingly and so if you like food in this vein and are willing to splurge, Meritage remains a good bet.

Alright, I’m not sure what this weekend’s meal plans will be but they will not be as expensive. Hopefully, it will also involve a meal eaten outside at a restaurant.


 

5 thoughts on “Meritage II (St. Paul, MN)

  1. I would guess “amusements” is a slightly playful / euphemistic translation of the French “amuse-gueule”?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amuse-bouche

    Although if wikipedia is to be trusted then it’s a bit unusual to list amuse-gueule on a menu, or to charge for them.

    And I agree with you on the salmon albumin! Obviously it’s harmless, but it looks a bit careless.

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  2. I looked up Billi Bi back when I first tried it at Meritage and found an explanation in a comment on a recipe in the NY Times. Sam Sifton wrote “Craig Claiborne, who brought this amazing cream of mussels soup to The Times in the 1960s and refined it over the years with his longtime kitchen collaborator Pierre Franey, once called it “the most elegant and delicious soup ever created.” From the comment: “the original (pre-Claiborne) dates to 1925 and comes from Chez Maxim’s in Paris and is the creation of chef Louis Barthe when he was at Ciro’s in Deauville. It is named for his customer William Brand and was originally called Potage Billy Brand, then shorten to Billy By (not Bi) and is only the mussel broth – no mussels actually in the soup. The full story appears in the 1962 book, Chez Maxim’s.”

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    • Ah, thanks for that! I wonder if the variant spelling is common or if it is meant to signal a variation in the soup itself. Anyway, I liked it a lot. But considering a thimbleful cost $4.50 I’m a little scared to contemplate what the price of a regular serving might be…

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