HIGH CONCEPT - Le Meritage's attention to flavor and detail make it one of the city's best new restaurants
"Artfully Scrumptious Le Meritage"
Friday, October 09, 2009
By Brett Anderson Restaurant writer
You know how restaurant employees across the nation secretly agreed to greet every customer with the question, "Have you ever dined with us before?" Have you ever said yes to avoid the patronizing tutorial on the difference between appetizers and entrées and the virtues of sustainable agriculture?
Don’t do that at Le Meritage. Its menu really is sort of complicated.
It is divided into six sections. Each is headed by a description pertaining to the type of wine - light whites, full-bodied whites, spicy/earthy reds and so on — that is supposed to pair well with the three dishes listed below it. The menu recommends specific wines, served by the half or full glass, for every dish, each of which is either an appetizer that’s also available in an entrée portion or an entrée that’s also available in shrunken form.
Bad restaurant concepts are like botched nose jobs and six-figure automobiles: They tend to highlight the deficiencies they are designed to hide. Le Meritage’s concept is not bad. It is merely flawed, and its biggest flaw is in giving diners the impression that wine is the star of this restaurant when that is far from the case — not as long as Michael Farrell is in the kitchen.
Last winter, the chef showed up in New Orleans out of nowhere to open Le Meritage in the Maison Dupuy Hotel. News that a chef from Nantucket, Mass., was hired to execute an idea for a French Quarter hotel restaurant that takes five minutes to explain did not leave me eager to visit. But I did, and it turns out Le Meritage is one of the best new restaurants to open in New Orleans this year.
This is so in part because of moments like this one from a recent meal: Pouring a steamy, flaxen stream of corn and crab bisque into a bowl of pearly lump meat, our waitress cracked, “We do this to tease the rest of the people at the table.” The aroma turned slightly musky as the hot, sweet broth made contact with the crab, a transformation you could taste in the soup, whose thickness was derived mostly from the coarse blending of corn.
The tease worked because anyone who wasn’t eating the bisque wanted to be by the time the waitress walked away. The dish was indicative of Farrell’s appealing style because it wrapped uncluttered flavors in a familiar package that, by the time the bowl had been wiped clean with bread, didn’t seem all that familiar.
Farrell’s food is so visually striking that a diner could be excused for fearing appearances are his greatest concern. Yet his food is ultimately memorable due to small acts of precision technique and good taste.
In the house salad it was a full-bodied ice wine vinaigrette and a long strip of cucumber deployed with the agility of a basket weaver; in a plate of genuinely medium-rare lamb chops, an autumnal hash of apples, sweet potato and bacon. A circle of slivered, perfectly ripe avocado carried cubes of raw, sesame-kissed Gulf tuna, a gorgeous marriage of ingredients with different but equally justifiable claims on the word “buttery.”
The menu’s wine suggestions are helpful. One glass (the velvety Lonko Malbec) even outclassed its edible partner (the oily braised short ribs). Furthermore, as much as I enjoy losing myself in a thick wine list — and Le Meritage has one — it occurred to me after a second meal of drinking pitch-perfect pairings with every course how often I default to the bottles of medium-bodied reds that are most apt to drink adequately with every dish on the table. It is one of the reasons half the drinking public has forgotten there are grapes other than pinot noir.
That said, the greatest benefit of Le Meritage’s menu design is the opportunity it offers to experience Farrell’s fully realized dishes in miniature. The shrunken canvases help satisfy the urge to sample that has become the dominant trait of the modern diner.
More importantly they bring the chef’s perfectionist streak into sharper focus, magnifying, for instance, the delicate play of texture and flavor that knits together a plate of what amounts to postage-stamp versions of two dishes: duck confit fixed with seared foie gras and ribbon-thin slices of rosy duck breast fanned beneath a thimble of fig compote — the leavening dark fruit component the entire creation demands. A larger fillet of pan-roasted halibut may have dampened the crunchy accomplishments of the chive-potato cake beneath it. It certainly would have left less room for grilled quail. Or the pancetta-wrapped rabbit tenderloin, which arrived sliced in a cradle of housemade taleteller.
The reduced portions, of course, leave less room for error. There wasn’t enough red risotto on a plate of red snapper with charred summer peppers, for instance, to distract from the overcooked fish. And as much as I enjoyed the silken celery root puree and minty herb salad Farrell used to frame his molasses-rubbed pork fillet, the dish was short-circuited by the one thing it lacked: salt.
Le Meritage took over the space last occupied by Dominique’s. It’s still a generically elegant dining room that looks more like the banquet area of a governor’s residence than the domain of a chef trafficking in bright ideas. It’s also still strangely disconnected from the hotel. Once I called for reservations and ended up talking with someone at the Maison Dupuy’s front desk who had no idea how to execute my request. More recently I waited for my friend in the adjacent bar. The bartender asked what I was up to. I told her I was going to have dinner.
Le Meritage’s staff is leagues more professional, particularly when it comes to helping diners navigate a menu that isn’t exactly self-explanatory.
— LE MERITAGE —
1001 Toulouse St., 504.522.8800.
Open: Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Prices: Small plates $8 to $18. Large plates $14 to $35.
Credit Cards: All major.
Parking: Valet, street.
THE RATING IS BASED ON:
Food: Excellent. Michael Farrell is a chef with a perfectionist’s steak who wraps uncluttered flavors in familiar packages that, when all is said and done, don’t seem all that familiar. His food is visually striking yet ultimately memorable due to small acts of precision technique and good taste.
Ambiance: Very good. Le Meritage’s dining room is undeniably comfortable. Its elegance is also generic and clashes with sensibility of a chef trafficking in bright ideas.
Service: Very good. Le Meritage’s staff is professional, particularly when it comes to helping explain the restaurant’s wine-centric, small-plate/large-plate concept.
Best bets: Meritage salad ($8 small, $15 large); pan-roasted halibut ($13, $25); corn and crab bisque ($8, $14); tuna tartare ($15, $28), duck two ways ($18, $35); lamb chops ($17, $29); chocolate pot de crème ($8)