Theater, fantasy and restaurant criticism.
“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, from Being and Nothingness
All fine dining has an element of theater, and fantasy: you make believe you are in a bistro in Paris, the waiters pretend you are somebody really important. Unless either the waiter or the customer takes themselves too seriously, everybody knows it’s just play. The plot thickens a bit when the guy who plays the customer is actually a restaurant critic pretending not to be a restaurant critic, and the staff who play waiters and hosts are all pretending that they don’t know that the guy at table four is a restaurant critic.
Our waitress spotted me the minute we walked in the door at Meritage, but I didn’t figure this out until chef-owner Russell Klein (formerly of W.A. Frost) came up and introduced himself at the end of the evening. In the meantime, we had a great time – great food, smart service – and the very enjoyable sense that everybody involved in the restaurant was having fun, and not taking themselves too seriously. Our server, Mel,was prompt, attentive, and knowledgeable about the food and wine – and at the same time quirky and funny, and seemed to be playing her role with a wink. It is just theater after all. Haven’t we seen you somewhere before, my wife asked? Yes, she waited on us once at Toast – she remembered serving my wife, and she thought maybe I was there too.
The dapper maitre d’, Ross, brought around a trolley to show Meritage’s “cheese program” – a selection of five fromages, including a Roquefort, a Tomme chevre washed in Muscadet, a Brie de Meaux, another flavored with walnut liqueur, and a Vermont cave-aged Shepard cheddar, each available for $5 an ounce. Mel confided in a conspiratorial tone that Ross had actually been Mariah Carey’s private butler. Mel said this was not for publication, but when I spoke to Ross later, he volunteered the fact, and said it was okay to publish. In any case, he played the part perfectly, with just the right air of gravitas. He also told me that his full title is maitre de fromage.
Meritage looks about the same as it did when it was A Rebours, and it still presents itself as a French bistro. Klein got his formal training at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, so when it comes to cassoulet and coq au vin, (Tuesdays, $22) he knows his stuff. But he’s not taking any of this stuff too seriously, either. Klein takes the idea of a bistro and plays with it, subvert it, serving up matzo ball soup and a classic American burger with fries alongside the foie gras and cassoulet, and offering a matzo and nutella sandwich for dessert.
The food was delightful. Klein didn’t actually cook for us – he spent the evening at a nearby table, having dinner with his wife, Desta, who doubles as hostess and bartender, and his mother, who was visiting from out of town. Good for him – he has his priorities in order. The rest of the kitchen crew did just fine. I started with one of bite-sized “amusements” – a tiny tuna tartare taco, followed by a juicy 1/3 pound burger, enlivened with chopped onions and a dash of Worcestershire, and a generous pile of fries on the side.
Vegetarian entrees often seem like an afterthought, but Klein’s “composition of autumn vegetables” ($16) was an inspired combination: a short stack of small pumpkin pancakes accompanied by a sunchoke frittata of caramelized Brussels sprouts and carrots. Our other entrée was a winner as well:– four large scallops, topped with toasted hazelnuts, accompanied by kale, squash, white beans and a brown butter sauce ($25). Ordering scallops at local restaurants seems to be a lot like Russian roulette, with about four chambers loaded: most of the time, you get “wet-packed” scallops, treated with sodium tri-poly phosphate, which makes them retain water (so they can be sold more cheaply), but robs them of their sweetness. To judge by the sweet succulent flavor, these were dry-packed.
We finished with a couple more bite-sized amusements – the nutella matzo sandwich, and a tiny cup of espresso mousse. Next time, I’ll save room for one of the more ambitious dessert offerings, like the warm chocolate hazelnut cake served with a salty caramel ice cream or the chilled grand marnier soufflee (both $7).