Mereday's Fine Dining: Not Ready for Prime Time

Not Ready for Prime Time

Charles Mereday, the eponymous chef of this new restaurant, hidden away (signage is almost non-existent) in the sprawling Naples Bay Resort — a hotel, condo (with boatslips), and retail complex just off the Tamiami Trail — has good credentials. He put in time at New Jersey's celebrated Ryland Inn and worked at Maison Troisgros in France, before becoming executive chef at Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia and then owner–chef of the Old Stone Farmhouse in St. Thomas, in the U.S Virgin Islands. Based on a dinner at the place on a recent Saturday evening, though — and assuming that Mereday is more than just a hired hand here, and actually has some control over the way his restaurant functions — I'm not at all sure that he's ready for prime time.

His menu — fixed-price only — is divided into five sections, four savory, one sweet. Diners are invited to choose three, four, or five courses (at $55, $75, and $95, respectively), one of which has to be from the dessert section. The offerings, basically American with Italian, Mediterranean, and Moroccan accents, mostly sound pretty interesting. We chose Florida pink shrimp ceviche, pear ravioli with walnuts in brown butter, and seared foie gras with grilled peaches and mâche as starters; Moroccan-spiced lamb shank, Florida grouper with various vegetables, and duck confit with mushroom risotto as mains; cheese plates and one sticky toffee pudding with brown butter ice cream to finish. One of our number added another order of foie gras as an interim course, between appetizers and mains (or before appetizers).

The food wasn't bad. On the basis of flavor and presentation alone, I'd put Mereday's on a list of the top 20 restaurants in Naples, though near the bottom. The disconnect between the kitchen and the pleasant, eager-to-please wait staff, though, made it difficult to enjoy the chef's efforts on their own merits. There was
the mysterious amuse-bouche (mysterious because our waiter had no idea what it was) — a few little wisps of what turned out to be strawberry and fennel (which anyway was more perplexing than amusing). There was the very long wait for appetizers: At one point, it looked as if a couple of servers were headed our way with our first courses, but the chef called them back to his open kitchen. At another point, a martini glass filled with what turned out to be the ceviche appeared on the service counter, where we watched it sit, forlornly, waiting for its companions, for at least 15 minutes. (Fortunately, the heat lamp overhead wasn't turned on.)

There was the restaurant's apparent shortage of flatware: When it finally reached our table, along with the other appetizers, the ceviche was served with a large dinner fork — not exactly the ideal implement with which to address finely chopped shrimp in a cone-bottomed vessel designed to hold gin and vermouth; and before the ravioli was set down, our server asked "Are you going to need a knife with that?" (Uh, I don't know, am I?)

There was the very long wait for main courses — did I mention that the restaurant was, at most, a quarter full, leading one to wonder how on earth they'd manage if they actually packed the place? — and the fact that the duck confit with mushroom risotto had somehow turned into shrimp and grits. Oh, and the math involved in figuring out how to serve an extra course to one diner was apparently beyond the capabilities of the either wait staff or kitchen, even after I reminded our waiter about the extra foie gras between courses. It simply never appeared. By the time we figured out that it wasn't coming, we really didn't care.

We didn't wait for our cheese plates and sticky toffee pudding. We didn't have another hour to spare. When we decided to cut our losses (and cut the evening short) and asked for the check, we finally aroused the attention of a tall gentleman with an accent who may have been the manager. He had spent most of the time we were there standing behind the bar talking with a couple of customers, who I'm sure got their drinks on time.

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