Over the past decade, I’ve eaten at no fewer than 500 different restaurants in a professional capacity. That includes time spent as a food writer at Minnesota Monthly, City Pages, and the Heavy Table. The number may be as high as 1,000, but details tend to blur as the calendar pages pile up on the floor. With all those calories logged and menus perused, it’s still safe to say that there is literally no place quite like Meritage.
Meritage (which celebrated its 10th birthday last night with a meal including spit-roasted whole leg of beef and harvest pumpkin soup) is a remarkable place. It’s a restaurant that is decidedly high-end but executes its menu with such care that it also offers superb value. It’s a place where you can taste a real canard à la presse or slice into an old-school baked Alaska.
And it’s a place where the best virtues of French dining — great ingredients, classic methods of preparation, careful plating — are still thriving, much to our collective good fortune. Speaking personally, I would almost always take a good taqueria or pho shop over a trendy restaurant, but I would also almost always take Meritage over just about anyplace else. There’s a lot that sets it apart, but here are a few discrete thoughts.
Think of “deep hospitality” as everything you’d want from a Michelin starred restaurant — an authoritative knowledge of the menu, insight into cocktails and wine pairings, a talent for timing and details — with none of the stuffiness that can creep into upscale dining. It’s hospitality that feels warm (not smothering), competent (not condescending), and inclusive (not snooty).
Your server at Meritage will be too busy making you feel comfortable and at ease to show off; if they happen to be deep-diving into the backstory of a dish or working overtime to help you enjoy your meal, it’s because that happens to be the best way to ensure that you have a lovely evening. Whatever the means, the end goal is the same: a truly pleasurable meal.
SEAFOOD THAT MERITS THE NAME
If you’ve spent time on either coast, you’re aware that seafood is always going to be a blind spot for the Upper Midwest. There’s no shame in it — we’re far from the ocean, and we’ve got access to brilliant pork, beef, and lake fish, plus tremendous beer and cheese. We can manage just fine. But with only a few exceptions, if you’re looking to experience a taste of the ocean in Minnesota, you’re going to be getting a distant echo of its potential rather than a roaring crescendo of flavor.
Meritage is one of those exceptions. Its annual Oysterfest is the visceral symbol of the way that the restaurant lives every day, namely by pursuing a deep relationship with purveyors (particularly oyster farmers). It’s those relationships that make the seafood stand out for its variety and freshness. Also, no one, anywhere, has been able to lay a glove on the wild-caught Pacific shrimp cocktail.
CLASSIC DINING DONE IN FULL
If you watch classic films or read the skillfully written detective novels of author and serious gourmet Rex Stout, you quickly get a visceral sense of what dining out used to be: well-dressed patrons taking hours to have long, full conversations while enjoying dishes prepared from scratch with love and care. There is a glamor to be had. You’re not just gaining calories or eating to Instagram, you’re part of a scene that feels a well-planned cocktail party. (See also: Saint Genevieve, Burch, Bar Brigade.) It’s the opposite of vulgar. While the wine might be good and the clothes fashionable, the overall point isn’t the wine or the clothes; it’s the joy that comes from connecting with your fellow human beings and letting your guard down for a couple of hours of fun.
As a mood, cool can be great, but it’s the opposite of warm for a reason. Meritage is a warm place to which you want to return, and that’s why it’s stuck it out for a decade (an eon, in restaurant years). We’re looking forward to what the next 10 years bring to this St. Paul institution.
Meritage, 410 Saint Peter Street, St. Paul MN 55102; 651.222.5670