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I really liked Keith Luce's cooking when he was at Plumpjack; so when I read about him striking out on his own at Merenda on Union (and Octavia), I eagerly rushed over. It hits my soft spot for chef/owners that are running an independent gig.
The rich red dining room with dark wooden beamed ceilings was packed (it's only Wednesday!). Must have been the recent enthusiatic review in Chron. I get the last seat in the house, a relatively uncomfortable corner of the bar. But the food is excellent and all is forgiven.
Merenda charges by the course. I decide to put the kitchen through its paces - 4 courses, chef's choice, with matching wines. The dishes I get are individually prepared - I was watching the stuff that was coming out of the kitchen, and I wasn't getting the same dish as some other table that was being served at the same time. That's good news - the kitchen is not lazy and has integrity.
I get an Italian sparkling wine (a prosecco) as an apertif, nice bubbles with crisp but compelling flavor.
The first course is a bruschetta topped with a lovely layer of melted cheese (mozzerella I think), chunks of smoky, meaty and flavor-loaded sausage and gently wilted lettuce that still retain their succulent crunch. The crisp lettuce is a great counterpoint to the sausage in both texture and taste. The tasty grilled bread has a soft center and has absorbed some of the juices and dressing. The combination makes for an excellent opener (alas, I forgot the delicious pairing with another dry Italian white - I remembered the maitre'd mentioning that it contained some riesling).
The next course is my favorite of the night - a tiny quail, plump and utterly juicy and sauced with what I thought were pan juices. The meat is impeccable, succulent and almost spongy with liquid. I was wondering if it was lightly seasoned with oregano; a chat with chef as he makes the rounds reveals that I was wrong - there's a dash of rosemary. There is bed of pink fruit resembling grapefruit on the dish that makes a decent match for the quail. For wine, the maitre'd pours me 2 glasses to taste - would I like a pinot noir or a dolcetto d'Alba? I think the dolcetto is a better match - more open fruit and slightly sweet. The pinot noir is earthy but somewhat flat on the fruit, a good wine nevertheless, just not as good a match.
After that a pasta dish - homemade tagliatelle with the golden earthy flavor of chanterelles. The al dente pasta and the mushrooms offer different kinds of crunch and they are truly complementary. A well measured amount of cream sauce, just enough to coat the pasta without overwhelming the dish with richness, binds everything together. Again, two glasses of wine to choose from: a light, crisp pinot blanc, or a slightly buttery chardonnay that is rounded off with a bit of complex nuttiness. the maitre'd thinks that the chardonnay would be a better match - he was absolutely right. I thought it was a bit unusual to move from a course with red wine (the quail and the dolcetto) back to course with white, but I did not sense any kind of disruption tastewise.
Then the main meat - a moist lamb shoulder in a red wine sauce that is perfectly complemented by sweet candided carrots and meltingly buttery artichokes chunks. The flavors mesh well, but I noticed that the lamb was only slightly warm while the carrots were hot. Perhaps a slight problem with timing in the kitchen? Not a big deal really. The dish is well composed and holds together without much effort. A strudy barbera, earthy, complex and tannic, goes well with the lamb.
Lastly dessert - a good sized wedge of lemon tart - it is sweet and richly lemony and very tangy. The acid is cut well by some whipped cream and little pools of red wine sauce give the tart a nice finish. I forgot what the italian dessert wine was, but it is a copper colored nectar with the faintest edge of bitterness at the end, like walnut husks.
For a total of 5 courses and matching wines it comes to $75-ish ($50 for food and $20 for wine, the remainder being tax). I throw in a generous tip on top of that (>20%) - the service is ever so little on the spotty side and could be better oiled, but the hospitality is quite genuine and they are eager to please.
I asked and found that Merenda changes menus weekly. This has quickly become a favorite and I will definitely be back for more.