A friend of mine has been visiting from out of town. He lives in Grand Forks, ND, and comes home a few times a year for a couple of weeks each time. We'd been looking for a place to have a nice meal, Grand Forks is food-dead, so even our local casual restaurants are really stepping out for him, but we wanted to go a bit bigger. We'd decided we wanted to find a place that does Tasting Menus, but finding one that does so and also accommodates my vegetarianism without being pigeonholed into three or so dishes that just happen to not contain meat was a bit tricky. We had briefly decided on Alma, but they changed their menu a couple days before we were going to go, and I cooled on my possible selections. It would've only been 3 courses anyways, and silly as it may seem, I think a "tasting menu" starts at 5.
We decided on Meritage (who, coincidentally, changed their menu the day after I made reservations as well) and 5 courses. Back in March I had emailed Meritage about their Recession Sundays / vegetarian options, and had a brief back and forth with Chef Klein and got the feeling not only would I be accommodated but be paid special attention.
We got downtown a bit early, snagged a parking spot on the street just a block away, and killed some time by talking about downtown memories, like Shinder's old location before they moved, and then moved again, the McDonalds that felt like a subway station, the old bi-level Burger King and the old Applebaum's store.
When we went in the Hamm building, we did a little more reminiscing before hearing the music in Meritage click on and team members start going about their business. We were the second party seated, and we were seated at a four top which I appreciated. Our server came over shortly and saw that we had requested the tasting menu, and asked about allergies, specific dislikes, etc. My friend had no worries, I mentioned I didn't like cold soups, I had one at the Heartland that I wasn't thrilled with, and I didn't want to get the Gazpacho (which I've never had) that was on the menu and have one of the early courses be a letdown. We never saw a menu in the restaurant, we just turned our meal over to the professionals.
Our server came back a few minutes later with our...
Meat: Lamb Bacon "BLT", deconstructed. A wedge of cherry tomato, lamb bacon, and a few drops of aioli, micro-crostini and micro greens. My friend would've been better served to eat this with a tweezers, he tasted each component on their own and then started building bites (a recurring theme). I explained an amuse is supposed to be a one bite taste, but I'd imagine he eclipsed ten "bites". He really savored the bacon and said it was exceptional.
Veg: Smoked Tomato Pain Perdu. A tiny little tomato sandwich. It had a drizzle of dark sauce on top that was not balsamic. A delicate but savory morsel. I ate it in two bites.
Meat: Pork Rillette with Fig Puree. This is a puck of cold shredded pork with fig puree on top, served with two crostini, some grain mustard, miniature pickle, and micro greens on the side. Did I mention my friend doesn't like cold meat? If he'd mentioned this when asked about preferences, I doubt he would've gotten this. Good thing he didn't, because he really enjoyed it. He took a taste of the pork on it's own, and then started building bites of all the ingredients on the crostini. He thoroughly enjoyed the plate, but did lament the need for a third crostini, getting that pork gone with just two toasts would be some very large bites. Post-meal, he commented a few times on what a nice surprise it was to get something he would never think to order and enjoy it so much.
Veg: Summer Vegetable Panzanella. A beautiful and vibrant salad with cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, black olive, red onion and feta cheese with fresh oregano, served with what I believe was a "bowl" made out of parmesan crisp. The veggies were all super fresh, the salad was dressed nicely, and the croutons were nice and crunchy. The parmesan crisp was thicker than I've seen before (at least on TV), and had I started on it earlier and put some in each bite of salad, I would've been able to finish it, but I had picked at my veggies a bit and ended up with too much parm left. It got a bit sharp on the tip of the tongue.
There was a bit of a delay in receiving our second course. Although I didn't really care, I had noticed as my seat faced a clock, but our server stopped by to let us know it would be just a couple minutes more. True to his word...
Meat: Seared Rare Ahi Tuna. What a beautiful dish. Some gorgeous slabs of tuna, seared to perfection, with carmelized corn, fresh calamari, spinach and fresh herb broth. My friend particularly liked the pairing of the carmelized corn and kalamari, something he said he wouldn't think to put together, but tasted great. I marveled from afar just how perfect the searing lines around the perimeter of the tuna were.
Veg: Mediterranean Vegetable Gateau. This was a little parcel made out of zucchini and summer squash, with roasted red peppers and such tucked inside. On the rest of the plate was some braised fennel, tomato, chickpea panisse, and black olive oil. I've had fennel pickled (liked it), raw (despised it), and now braised, which was a nice surprise. It wasn't too black licorice-y at all. The chickpea "fries" were great, and a bite with some of everything in it was awesome.
Note: Photo was poorly framed, sorry. Was trying not to be too intrusive.
Meat: Roasted Rack of Lamb. The lamb chops were rubbed with ras el hanout, the baby bell peppers were stuffed with lamb (sausage?), and the rest of the plate had chickpea , fennel, tomato confit and black olive oil. The chops got off to a bit of a rocky start, my friend encountered a bit too much connective / fat tissue, but got past that and enjoyed the meat. He'd remarked about the subtle spice on the exterior was, which we later learned was the ras el hanout. He appeared to enjoy the lamb meat that was stuffed in the peppers even more.
Note: Photo was poorly framed, sorry.
Veg: Composition of Summer Corn. Corn and ricotta "ravioli" in fried wonton wrappers dressed with honey, corn pancakes with a hint of green onion with mint butter, and a sweet corn custard. The ravioli was comically delicious, the wonton was perfectly crispy without being doughy inside, and the filling was superb. The honey just heightened the whole thing to smile inducing bites. And if these weren't good enough, the miniature corn pancakes were just impossibly good. They were about the size of a $0.50 piece, but packed with flavor. I even took a small piece off so my friend could taste it. Our server happened by right after this, and neither of us were making a sound, and he said "Speechless?", to which I replied, "Can I have about 20 more of these?" I had been putting off the custard until towards the end of this course, I kept a corn pancake so I could finish with something I knew I loved. Unfortunately the custard was the only flat note of my meal. It certainly wasn't bad, it just wasn't on par with everything else. It didn't taste very corny, the texture was spot on, but I'd argue that the micro greens served on it might've interfered a bit with the taste and texture. Luckily I had a corn pancake in reserve and took my time to savor the simple genius of it.
Our selection of cheese included a sheeps milk from Spain, a goats milk from France, and a creamy blue from France. They were presented with some walnuts, some pear gelee, and micro greens. They came with 5 pieces of bread, which was odd, no pun, because there was two of us. My favorite was the French goats milk paired with the pear gelee, my friend liked the Spanish sheeps milk just on bread. Neither of us are huge blue fans, but it was good.
Having never ordered a 5 course tasting menu, I wasn't sure what all we'd get. I kind of figured an amuse, a starter, a couple of mains, but I wasn't positive about the rest. Does the amuse count? Is dessert included? After the cheese course arrived, I assumed dessert was up next, and wondered if we'd get a choice, as I'd heard good things about the Pineapple Upside Down Cake, which is a personal favorite.
I was well beyond pleased to be presented with a Tasting Menu of Dessert. A trio of Creme Brulee, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and a Salted Caramel Ice Cream Lollipop. I started with the creme brulee. I cracked the sugar which was perfectly charred and went to work on the creamy custard inside. Next I bit into the ice cream pop and was surprised by how much I liked it. It was ensconced in dark chocolate, which I'm not a big fan of, but it certainly went with the salty caramel ice cream inside, which was absolutely delicious. I believe this is from Izzy's, which might be bad news as I live within walking distance. I saved the pineapple cake for last, expecting it to by my favorite. Although it was very good, I ate the Brandy soaked cherry in the middle of eating it, and it just kind of dulled the rest of the cake for me. It just hit me as fairly bitter, and I don't have much for a bitter palette.
Throughout the evening, the service was impeccable without being overly fussy. I was amused when I got up to use the restroom, I had folded my napkin into a fairly symmetrical square, but when I returned to my seat, it was back in a rectangle like when I first sat down. The silverware and plates (completely clean plates, I must say) were constantly whisked away without invasion. Our server, whose name escaped me, was the best server I've had so far. He explained the dishes and components where needed, he was friendly and personable, and he really seemed to care about the proceedings, as opposed to just being at work. He even laughed at my dumb joke about stopping at Porky's on the way home.
After we had received our bill, I looked up and Chef Klein was table side asking how our meal was. I told him I was the vegetarian, I thanked him for the best vegetarian food I've had, mentioned the previous couple of emails, and he asked me about my aversion to cold soups. This was a really nice surprise, as I hadn't spotted him previously, and he kind of sidled up out of nowhere. I don't know if he does that for every table, just tasting menu adventurers or what, but I found it to be a really nice touch.
Other than my corn custard, my only nit-picking complaint would be that the pour of my drink, The Macallan 12, was a bit on the shy side. I have it at home, I know it's not the cheapest, but for the price, I would've liked to have seen a slightly bigger pour.
I had pretty high expectations going in based on Meritage's reputation and my emails with Chef Klein, and my expectations were exceeded by quite the margin. Although generally out of my usual price point, it's certainly worth saving up for or finding budget friendly offerings (Brunch, Recession Sunday's, Restaurant Week) just to get in the door. I'll keep their menu bookmarked, but if I were to go back soon, I'd happily order the Composition of Corn entree and sit in smiling, stunned silence.
Note: photos appear in order of courses, but vegetarian are presented first.
410 Saint Peter St, Saint Paul, MN 55102
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