Look out, Pub & Kitchen. After a makeover, Meritage is poised to dominate 20th and Lombard.
Go-go-Gadget-neck, went the head of the secretarial blonde craning to see out the windows of the womb-like wine bar where she and I sat, separately. Across the street, a hip crowd curled out the front door of Pub & Kitchen onto the table-and-tree-lined sidewalk like the tail of a relaxed leopard.
“What’s that place,” she asked in the way a character might intone, “who’s that guy?” in a straight-to-DVD Bring It On sequel. I felt annoyed for the bartender, a cool, capable chick that must suffer that question a thousand times a night. Here on the corner of 20th and Lombard, there’s Pub & Kitchen and that other restaurant with the name no one is ever quite sure how to pronounce.
So meet Meritage, which rhymes with heritage. Fresh off an August facelift that coincided with the arrival of new chef Anne Coll, this is the first time in the restaurant’s five years that it’s on the lips of more than just neighborhood regulars.
The lounge and dining room now sport Dijon-yellow walls and butcher block tables, while Coll sports a resume with “Executive Chef, Susanna Foo” as the latest entry. Her collection of tidy house-made dumplings and gingered snacks has Foo written all over it, sure as the tingly floral overtones of hua jiao yan, the roasted Szechuan peppercorn salt that finds its way into everything here. But there are also flavors inspired by the Southeast Asian dudes that worked on Coll’s line during her six-year term on Walnut Street, like Thai kaffir lime in the mussels and tradewinds of Vietnamese star anise drifting through the spiced tomato chutney she serves with creamy panko-crusted local goat cheese.
Show me someone who doesn’t love fried cheese, and I’ll show you a liar. Coll’s interpretation of mozzarella sticks with marinara charmed, both for its execution (perfectly crispy outside and gooey inside) and subtle, smart hints of the Orient. Clearly this is fusion, but it’s done so well I don’t even want to cheapen it with that label.
This is also damn good drankin’ food, certainly not by accident considering Meritage is, and always has been, about wine. (The name references a controlled designation for American blends.) Since owners, life and business partners Michele DiPietro and Irene Landy, took over in 2006, Meritage’s wine program has become more approachable and affordable, with 14 by the glass (all $8), fun flights and 50 bottles under $50.
So bring on the alcohol sponges, fair bartender! Fat, tempura-fried jalapenos, like addictive poppers filled with hoisin-kissed house-ground pork and cellophane noodles in a ginger-soy glaze. Tight, pan-fried Hudson Valley foie gras dumplings tossed in butter browned with Burgundy truffles, cilantro and scallion. Silky Lancaster chicken liver pâté crowned with black plums macerated in brandy and five spice. All $6 or less, all tasty.
After “Snacks,” the menu progresses with “Small Plates,” an ironic heading for the giant U10 Cape May scallops seared med-rare and posed over an autumnal apple-cauliflower puree and vivid Thai basil-lemongrass emulsion. I loved the cute-as-a-Mini Cooper pulled pork sliders too; after a five spice massage and eight hours in the oven, Coll shreds the succulent pig butts and coats them in snappy ginger beer barbecue sauce. I dream of the five spice-dusted frites that might one day accompany, a perfect marriage of France and China if there ever was and one preferable to the crunchy (but clichéd) Asian cabbage slaw in overwhelming sesame vinaigrette.
Nothing clichéd about the desserts, though, not even the flourless chocolate cake. Coll boosted the dark ganache batter with pureed bananas, crowned the cake with roasted sliced ones arrayed like the petals of an exotic Asian flower, to elegant, scrumptious results. Made with robust Rome apples and Le Bus brioche soaked in coconut milk custard, her bread pudding had one foot in Thailand and another in the American heartland. This was the first of many bread puddings I’ll eat this fall, so good luck to everyone else trying to best Coll’s tender pouf topped with vanilla ice cream and apple-cinnamon bubbles.
Know where else you can get insanely good bread pudding? Look out the window. But rest assured, with Coll in Meritage’s kitchen, the Pub & Kitchen crowd is lookin’ right back atcha, wondering what’s going on across the street. ■