Maison Dupuy Hotel, 1001 Toulouse St., 586-8000; www.lemeritage.com
Serious cuisine, gorgeous presentations
An unorthodox menu approach proves awkward
Impressive new American cuisine wrapped in an over-engineered concept
In the same way that explaining a joke can ruin it, a restaurant menu that requires an orientation process for first-time users can prove distracting.
That was the case on our first visit to Le Meritage. We could practically hear the restaurant consultant's calculator clicking as the hostess informed us of our many options. This is a wine-themed menu with all dishes available as half or full portions. Dishes are listed by how their flavors correspond with wine characteristics, from "sparklers" (fried oysters, smoked salmon) to "robust reds" (lamb chops, beef short ribs). Wine pairings for each are printed along the margin, and they are offered in full and half pours. It's a lot to think over, and we decided just to order martinis and start throwing darts at the menu.
It's a tribute to chef Michael Farrell that initial skepticism about this concept fell away when his beautifully composed, vividly flavorful dishes began to arrive. On subsequent visits, we both played along with the wine pairings and stuck with one wine throughout, but all the dinners were memorable and exciting.
Le Meritage is in the space at the Maison Dupuy hotel that until last year was Dominique's. Practically nothing has changed in the elegantly bland dining room, right down to the padded chairs and soundtrack of anonymous, windswept jazz. Also like Dominique's, however, the food is ambitious and steers refreshingly clear of the typical hotel restaurant safe zones of chicken breasts and upscale burgers.
Farrell uses lots of local seafood, and all we tried were assertive. The red drum was roasted with a thick sheath of crinkly skin, as was the black grouper, giving a solid crunch outside firm flesh. Plenty of restaurants brag about their crab cakes, but this one really did live up to our waiter's glowing praise. Huge knuckles of sweet white meat and a smattering of crawfish tails were held together by not much more than mutual affection.
Many people who dine here opt for a parade of small plates, but don't confuse this with tapas. Even the small dishes at Le Meritage are usually complete and elaborate compositions with all the balance of a full-fledged entree, just miniaturized.
The perfectly grilled and greaseless quail was one example of big flavors writ small, plated with a salad of earthy greens and a tiny pile of wild rice. Another was the duck, one of the best dishes I sampled. It came on a long, narrow plate anchored on one end by slices of seared breast with fig compote and on the other by a few silken slabs of foie gras scored to catch a mellow, honeyed sauce, with a border between them made of buttery roasted potatoes and, as if a centerpiece, a purple iris blossom.
I regretted not ordering the large portion of the excellent rabbit tenderloin wrapped in pancetta over tagliatelle, but I was glad the excessively chewy and disappointing flatiron steak took only a small bite from both my appetite and wallet.
The service is friendly and earnest, but if it were any more scripted, the menu would have to come with stage directions. Waiter, exit dining room left. Most people will spend the same amount here as at competing upscale restaurants, but will come away with more to talk about for the money.