Finally, the day had come. Escrow had closed on the sale of my house in San Francisco, and, miraculously, my bank account balance was suddenly quite a bit healthier. Another celebration was in order.
Hubby and I headed down to Bishops on the Square in downtown Merced. I’ve repeatedly heard reports that the food was the best in Merced, and it had even been mentioned in Bon Appetite magazine. Nonetheless, no one I knew had yet tried it (although I did overhear some British tourists, in town for a big bike race, raving about it in a local bookstore). Time to check it out.
A call ahead verified they were open (they were briefly closed for some remodeling of the bar area) and no, no alcohol license yet, but no corkage on wine either. We picked up an appropriately celebratory bottle and headed over.
At around seven on a weeknight, we walked into a completely empty restaurant. We were greeted warmly, and escorted to what might be the best table in the house: a four-top upstairs in a corner of windows, with lovely views of the adjacent square and much of downtown Merced's Main Street. I hadn’t even realized there was an upstairs: it is very pleasant, even pretty, very airy yet a bit more formal than the downstairs. Ambiance overall (other than the emptiness) was very nice: very well-spaced tables, recorded piano renditions of old standards, white tablecloths and fresh flowers. The upstairs room would be a lovely place for a group or business dinner.
Service was also good all evening long: a little relaxed or slow perhaps, but not inappropriately so. Good stemware and wine service for the bottle we brought with us, water glasses kept full, and the like, added to a big city feel.
The menu, which changes regularly, was short, surprisingly reasonably priced given the ambiance and style of cooking (though certainly not cheap by Merced standards), and written with the place’s focus on California cuisine in mind: sources are listed for all meats and fish and most other ingredients, and many are local. First impression, solidified when we were served an amuse of a porcelain soup spoon filled with a salmon ceviche: there is no comparable restaurant anywhere in Merced.
Hearts of romaine salad in a baked parmesan cup: a cute take on a cesar salad, and a large serving, but it was underdressed and somewhat watery. Given that I think most salads are waayyy overdressed, when I say watery, I mean watery. The lettuce was beautifully fresh, all the ingredients were top-notch, and the idea was a nice one, but the execution missed.
Seared scallops with corn, bacon, tomato on polenta cakes: a nice size portion, with a salad of bacon, white corn and tomatoes with the scallops sitting on polenta cakes on top. This was my appetizer choice (of course, it had many of my favorite foods). The scallops tasted fresh and were nicely seared. I gave hubby a few bites: he thought it was delicious. I thought it was a very good dish that would have been very, very good in summer when the corn and tomatoes were in season. Enjoyable, with the potential to be great, even if it was a bit odd to be served summer ingredients in early spring in a restaurant in a farm friendly area.
Mains: I ordered a grass-fed filet mignon in a peppercorn sauce; hubby decided on a Niman Ranch lamb sirloin.
The filet: the provider was listed on the menu but I forgot to make a note of it. A pity, because both hubby and I agreed that this was excellent beef. Definitely one of the better steaks I’ve had in a long while. Unfortunately, I ordered it rare, and it came more or less medium rare. I loved it anyway. Moreover, at only $23 (the most expensive item on the menu) I thought it was a steal given the quality of the beef.
The sirloin: the lamb itself was very good, and I thought the sauce, a red wine reduction, was very nicely done. Unfortunately, it was way overcooked, more so than my steak. Hubby asked for medium rare, it came out somewhere around medium well. Hubby debated sending it back, even though that is probably something he has done only once or twice in his life…if hubby even thinks about sending something back, you know he is really not a happy camper. In the end, he decided not to, probably because we were still the only diners at that time (two other couples came in and were seated while we were finishing our mains) and he was starting to feel sorry for the place…besides, it was a very generous portion and only $19, and I was willing to trade bites for bites of my steak (had the lamb not been overcooked, it would have been excellent).
Both mains were served on a bed of polenta cakes (basically a larger version of the cakes in my scallops dish) and some braised purple cabbage. I loved the cabbage (I always love cabbage) but was a bit annoyed that (a) we both received the same sides on our plates and that (b) the otherwise attentive server neglected to tell me that I would have the same polenta with both app and main.
Dessert: obviously, Bishops has no pastry chef yet, at least not on the night we were there: our choices to end were various flavors of gelato, and an ice cream sandwich made with gelato. That’s it. We shared a plate of three: from the seven or so available flavors we chose chocolate/hazelnut, pistachio (FDA be dammed!) and a blackberry/cabernet sauvignon. All of the gelato is made by an LA company; our server wasn’t sure which one. Conclusion: the blackberry cabernet was quite good, with figgy undertones, the pistachio lacked a lot of flavor, and the chocolate/hazelnut had great flavor but a chalky mouth feel (the nuts may have made that worse). Our plate came out with two little, nice chocolates (mine was a chocolate covered pomegranite gelatin of some sort), and after the meal we were also served two nice chocolate truffles. Another not very Merced-like touch…
When the check came hubby and I both had the same thought: ‘that can’t be right’. Obviously, not ordering wine and the fact that there was no corkage helped keep the total down, but still, given the overall quality of the food, atmosphere and service we thought the final bill ($75 with tax before tip, for two apps, two mains and a large shared dessert) was quite reasonable. Granted, we were feeling flush and on top of that haven’t recalibrated totally away from SF prices but, still, Bishops on the Square is well-priced and definitely cheaper than the other higher end places in town…
And yet. Even though the food at Bishops was as good or better than any I’ve had anywhere in Merced, and the setting was lovely and relaxing, hubby and I both agreed: while we will undoubtedly be back sometime fairly soon when we get a bit homesick for San Francisco style, our bottom line: somehow, Bishop's lacks soul. Add to that lack of execution on the basics, and while it is a lovely place, it just doesn’t shine.
I’d love to be proved wrong though, as Merced could really use an upscale spot that emphasizes local providers and high-end ingredients. Moreover, in a way, I am glad I didn’t love it. If I had, I’d be very, very worried. As it is, I will be interested to see how it does. I certainly hope that Bishops survives and thrives (though frankly, I have some doubts. That liquor license can’t come soon enough!) and that other Hounds check it out for dinner and report back as well. Glitches and execution issues aside, this place deserves more of a crowd than on the night of our visit.
Bishop's on the Square
460 W Main St, Merced, CA 95340