If you’ve had shrimp cocktail just about anywhere, you’ve probably wondered, “What’s the point?” Watery, nearly tasteless shrimp dunked into one-dimensional cocktail sauce may not be the worst thing you’ve ever eaten, but surely it ranks among the most asinine. Shrimp cocktail is seafood for people who don’t particularly care for seafood and so order it with a nearly undetectable flavor that is blotted out by hamfisted sauce.
One of the many nice things about Meritage in St. Paul is the restaurant’s tendency to surprise a diner with ordinary foods done extraordinarily well. I can still remember my bewildered happiness a number of years ago when I ordered scrambled eggs at brunch and found them supple, rich, and absolutely delicious. Scrambled eggs aren’t normally something to fuss over.
Neither is shrimp cocktail, of course — except at Meritage. You pay for the privilege: each wild-caught Pacific shrimp is $4. That sounds like highway robbery until you look at the size of the shrimp — each is roughly the size of a trucker’s arm, or a small porpoise. That’s not strictly true, but man, they’re big. Two of them make a terrific starter.
And then you sink your teeth into the food, and you realize that this is shrimp like you’ve not had it before: incredibly firm, clean tasting, and — for lack of a better word — meaty. It’s just got a lovely, substantial flavor to it, a flavor you’ve always missed in other shrimp, except for the fact you never knew it was supposed to be there. And the house-made cocktail sauce is subtle: a bit spicy, with depth, but not loud or simple or stupid. It complements the flavor of the shrimp rather than howling at it. This is shrimp cocktail for grownups.
Meritage, 410 St. Peter St, St. Paul; 651.222.5670