By JOHN DeMERS
The simple good sense behind the concept at Le Meritage, a hip new restaurant in the New Orleans French Quarter, tends to disguise just how edgy the notion actually is. After all, even in a world with lots of “small plate” restaurants, organizing those small plates by type of wine suggested for pairing is still relatively unknown.
Small plates, of course, are the generic notion that grew out of Spanish tapas, with perhaps a sideways glance at the Italian vision of primi piatti. In neither of those cases, though, were the small plates originally intended to be your meal. They were warm-up acts, at best. It seemingly is an American notion to translate the idea of “grazing” – remember when that word was making the rounds, often in the same sentence with “foodie”? – into an entire evening of interesting foods with perhaps even more interesting wines.
There are no official appetizers or entrees at Le Meritage, as the place is deftly made real by executive chef Michael Farrell – a Virginia native whose resume includes stints at the Summer House in Nantucket and Beano Cabin at Beaver Creek. What you find on the menu instead are six categories of wine: Sparklers, Light Whites, Full Bodied Whites, Fruity Reds, Spicy/Earthy Reds and Robust Reds. We could quibble with the vocabulary a bit, but ultimately the three wines listed with each category and the three foods suggested as pairings carry their own logic. Each of the dishes is available in a small or large portion, just as each of the wines is offered in half or full pour. Decisions, decisions… After a while, we found our Le Meritage m.o. Plates, always small. Pours, always full. This way, at least we were never thirsty.
Our general sense of serving size points to 2-3 small plates per person with wine pairings, plus a dessert or two. In the course of the evening, we sipped NV Gloria Ferrer blanc de blancs from Napa, then turned our attention to a pair of pinot noirs – 07 Duckhorn Decoy from Napa and the 07 Innocent Bystander from Australia’s Yarra Valley, and finished with the Spanish priorat called Gine Gine from Guil and Gine and the Chappellet Mountain Cuvee from St. Helena. The staff at Le Meritage is encouraged to share its genuine enthusiasm for this or that wine, but ultimately you can drink anything you want with any food you want. I approve.
Most of the dishes were standouts in one way or another, especially the first two. Both the pan-roasted halibut with chive potato cake, apple smoked bacon and lump crabmeat and the rabbit tenderloin with tagliatelle, pancetta and chive managed to be the best versions of their protein I can remember. Eating the rabbit, in fact, thin slices atop a reddish-brown jus, I found myself wishing dishes came in small, large and gargantuan.
Other nifty treats included the duck two ways with fig compote, foie gras (one of the “ways”) and butter potatoes, the braised beef short rib with parsnip puree and a bright green basil gremolata, and the grilled beef filet with red wine jam and a blue cheese tartlet. Some other time, I look forward to trying the P&J fried oysters on the half shell with horseradish and citrus zest, and also the Gulf shrimp and grits with tasso and red eye gravy.
In a restaurant devoted to small plates, the typical Deep South big dessert would just seem wrong somehow. Chef Farrell responds accordingly, with several winners tending toward the lighter side. Surprisingly, one of the most satisfying is the trio of sorbets, not usually my cup of tea. With a changing array of fruit flavors, they seem perfect after such a barrage of different food and wine tastes. The coffee crème brulee is excellent as well. Not to be outdone, the dessert menu arrives with a list of special wines, ports, sherries, late harvest and the like. There are no fewer than five Sauternes on the list, from $16 for a glass of the 2006 Chateau Clos Haut Peyraguey to $400 for a half-bottle of 1997 Chateau d’Yquem.
Le Meritage at the Maison Dupuy Hotel, French Quarter