Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meritage - St. Paul

Heaven is a lofty palace built upon layers of pork and duck fat spiked Cassoulet. As I greedily dipped my spoon back into Matt's dinner I couldn't stop exclaiming, "Lovely! Just lovely!" like some kind of hopped up Holly Golightly.

Last Friday night Matt and I had the fortune of trying to decide how to spend an evening with just the two of us. We'd been lucky enough to have a little financial windfall, which of course needed to be spent entirely on food and liquor. We considered our options carefully. Really, there was only one place to go.

The problem with being a recovering food blogger is that I'm way too opinionated on where and how one should spend an evening dining out. Worse, slightly out of practice food blogger - and old (don't forget drastically aging) recovering party girl means I'm painfully aware that there is a myriad of new dining destinations that I have yet to try.

We were leaning towards an attempt at dining at the new Piccolo. It's hard enough to part with a dollar these days, it's more nerve wracking to do so at a very new restaurant that's rumored to be a bit pricey.

There was no question, we needed to go to Meritage. Meritage is a gem for Saint Paul. While the street it's on is lined with other, mediocre restaurants, this chef owned destination always highlights seasonal cuisine with sultry French accents. The service is top notch and the view is always lovely. It's my favorite date night spot.

We sprung for the $10 valet fee and were whisked inside to a lovely little table, despite our lack of a reservation. We could look out the frosted glass to see the ice skaters beyond. Twinkling white lights decorated the nearby parks for the Winter Carnival.

We began our meal with the steak tartare. The plate arrived with the steak molded into a little tower in the center, flanked by a small salad, cornichons and grilled bread slices. The meat was achingly tender and expertly dressed with just a little creamy sauce dotted with briny spikes of capers. Each component enhanced the beefiness of the steak, the texture of which was not unlike sushi grade tuna. It positively melted on the tongue. The buttery, smokey toasts and the little greens just kissed with a honeyed vinaigrette begged for more of that delicious, exquisite meat.

I tried to pace myself by sipping my glass of Boomtown Cabernet Sauvignon. I'd unknowingly ordered the perfect foil to our appetizer. It had deep woodsy notes with a hint of tobacco balanced out by the big fruit flavors of Cabernet. Needless to say - I was pretty much in heaven. Despite my best attempts at being polite company, my eyes rolled back into my head and I started to kind of happily convulse in my seat. It was so goooooood, ugggghhhhhluululughhhh. The icy looks from other diners brought me back into the moment.

We'd all but licked our appetizer plates clean while we waited for our entrees. I had that anxious feeling of not wanting this fleeting experience to ever end and yet thrilled at the prospect of more food, more flavors and more of this exquisite adult feeling. I was drunk on the possibilities of the evening, loving my husband, my surrounds and every moment I got to savor everything.

This was when Chef Russell Klein made the mistake of stopping by our table. I'm all but ransacked by the afterglow of an evening out, yet randy for my next go around, and here's the unexpected business owner meeting my bleary eyed gaze.

"How is everything this evening?" He asked.

A fair question, but one I couldn't accurately answer in the space of a couple of minutes. "Really good," Matt enthused.

"It's just wonderful - we love everything," I licked the corners of my mouth, trying to think of some concise way to explain to him that NO - I'm not your every day diner - I GET you, man. I know. All I came up with was, "LOVE the winter menu!!!" And then I wanted to crawl under the table. It wasn't so much the simple words, as the overly enthusiastic sputtering of them.

"Uh... yeah, I need to change that. Thank you." He wandered away to the next table.

Thankfully, our food then showed up to distract me from my idiocy. (I carried a watermelon? Oh, GOD.)

Matt had ordered the afore mentioned Cassoulet and I had the moules frites. His meal was served in a little clay pot, topped with a confit of duck leg and a crust of browned bread crumbs.

My mussels were in a bowl, where the lid was removed so I could chuck the shells into it, alongside a cone of fries. The ink colored shells glistening in their wine and heavenly buttery sauce. Studding the sauce were porky nubs of pancetta. The fries were perfectly crisped on the outside and puffy, airy on the inside. It didn't hurt that they were served with an herby Bearnaise sauce for the dipping. Again, there was more of that awesome grilled bread. I was so excited to find one piece, already under the mussels bathing in that luscious broth, wait for me to slurp it down.

The mussels themselves were ideally medium sized. They weren't so big that they were tough or chewy, but not so small that I worried about getting an appetizer under the entree guise.

Meanwhile, Matt was moaning his way through the hunks of pork and duck. He dined on a supposed peasant's dish that I know I could never pretend to recreate. The duck confit was gone in minutes and each bite scooped from the pot contained more happy wonders of luxurious foods. The creamiest white beans I've ever had, with a delightfully hammy, garlicky sausage with big fatty hunks of pork. It was comforting, familiar and yet like nothing we'd ever had before. The portion size was not at all precious, either. We were able to take it home and both have enough for lunch the next day.

We ate until our chairs groaned in protest. The prospect of desert was too much, but we decided to head out for one more cocktail. A toast to our fantasy world where we could afford such luxuries, and belonged to a world that doesn't include any of the usual January drudgery.

We strolled down the cold sidewalks, watching skaters laughing, wobbling on the ice. Young girls draped in sashes, arms linked, scampering from one building to the next, their laughter echoing in the tiny white lights. The ice sculptures in the park sparkled under the blue lights and families towed sleds from the park to their cars.

We ended our evening at the St. Paul Hotel for two expertly crafted cocktails and just a couple of more moments of sweet, lovely perfection, lulled by all that we've been lucky enough to have and hold this icy wintry season.