A Long Overdue Dinner


It's funny how really good restaurants can sit practically at your doorstep, yet you take $10 cab rides to eat halfway across town instead. Meritage is the one in our Philadelphia neighborhood that we've passed 100 times but never felt compelled to go in.

On a whim one recent Friday night, we finally took the plunge. I'd been calling around to a variety of restaurants repeating, "What's the wait for two?" when finally a Meritage hostess said she had an open high top in the bar area. I responded that we would be there in just a few minutes and then arrived to a pleasant surprise — the hostess actually put a reserved sign on the table for us. Brownie points!

The menu at Meritage is a nice mix of snacks, small plates, and entrées. I think it would be fun to go back and just sit at the cozy bar with wine and order a few snacks. This time we only got the braised kobe meatballs, which were decent, but I'd like to try the crispy calamari in Korean chile sauce; goat cheese, spinach, and chicken confit strudel; or the pork and shitake dumplings next time.

Off the small plate menu, we shared the octopus sautéed with crispy chickpeas, tapenade, tomato confit, and preserved Meyer lemon. The octopus was cooked just right, but it was mixing each bite with a little tomato and tapenade that made this the highlight of the meal for me. The chickpeas were also fun to munch on. I overheard others at the bar raving about the butternut squash and apple soup, which I assume is seasonal and sounds ideal for a chilly night.

As entrées, Bradd got grilled hanger steak with new potato croquettes and sautéed garlic string beans. I opted for the roasted duck breast in a plum wine sauce. Both come sliced thin and were easy to share. Bradd thought the steak had just the right amount of sauce to complement a quality cut of meat. My duck seemed to be a special of the evening, so I'm not sure when it will be available again, but it was quite tasty. Even if you aren't into pink, you'll gobble up every last medium-rare slice and drop of the accompanying red wine sauce. The sweet potato purée on the side was so-so. I tend to only like sweet potatoes when they are fried, though. I would rather have had Bradd's yummy garlic green beans.

For dessert, I recommend the white chocolate and brown sugar bread pudding with salted caramel and vanilla ice cream. Warning — don't get it to fulfill a white chocolate craving. You can't really taste, and definitely can't see, that part because it's cooked right into the batter. Regardless, it is a solid dessert choice and plenty big enough for two to share.

Meritage also does weekly specials and tasting menus on Wednesday through Friday nights and vegan tastings on Tuesdays. This night, there was an all-apple focused menu being offered. I thought it might be overkill to have four courses all with apples, but after seeing the unique twists Meritage puts on its traditional dishes, I'd venture to guess a tasting menu with one focal ingredient will offer enough variety to keep your interest.

It may not knock your socks off but you'll get a well-executed meal at Meritage. Both entrées were about $25, which I was comfortable with given the results. Like similar restaurants, they get you on the $10 glasses of wine. Other people who know wine better than me report that the selection is very good, but you pay for it.

Maybe I'm just channeling a little girl power, but I like that Meritage is owned by two women and that the kitchen is run by another, chef Ann Coll. One of the owners was behind the bar all night and clearly knows her regulars well. She seemed to be loving every second of what she does. Chef Coll got great accolades from Craig LaBan a few years ago for turning around the kitchen. She brings a variety of Asian flavors to more traditional French dishes, but in a way that the average diner (like me) probably wouldn't pick up on amid enjoying the simply solid meal in front of them.

I put Meritage in the same category as Salt + Pepper, Supper, and Matyson... tough to put a finger on something exceptionally different about these restaurants in terms of a cultural influence or style, but you find yourself recommending them frequently as places you trust for a lovely-but-not-stuffy atmosphere, a nice variety of menu options, and good quality food.