02/12/2010 04:20:48 PM PST
‘You’re magical and I would like to have your children.”
About halfway through my dinner at Meritage in Berkeley, I heard a middle-age woman say this to the restaurant’s chef, Josh Thomsen. Thomsen, a dirty blond in his late 30s, muttered something about his fiancee and thanked the diners — the woman was with a date — for their patronage.
Naturally, she was complimenting Thomsen, a former chef at the French Laundry in Yountville, on his gift for artful, farm-to-table cuisine. As executive chef at the Claremont Hotel, Club & Spa, Thomsen oversees the food and beverage programs of Paragon Bar & Cafe and Meritage, which replaced Jordan’s in a renovation last fall.
His wine-driven food is certainly exceptional — fresh, local, seasonal, inventive and pretty. The menu is an education in food and wine pairing, as dishes are categorized by the weight and style of wine that best matches them. Thomsen has no formal education in wine; just a sharp palate and the kinds of friends who own Napa wineries and invite him up for golf and breakfast burritos, he tells me.
We arrived at Meritage on a rainy Thursday evening for a 6:30 reservation. Although the lounge in front was busy, the dining room was still quiet. We were seated at a dramatic, deep booth with glorious views of Berkeley and the Bay Bridge. The decor was reminiscent of a Tommy Bahama shop, with mint green and chocolate brown huesd white and shutter panels on the walls. The property’s palm trees complete the look.
The service was impeccable and started with an aperitif of rich, creamy butternut squash soup drizzled with curry oil. Each dish is offered as a small plate or full entree portion. In order to sample more dishes, my dining partner and I opted for small plates. Later, Thomsen told me that 90 percent of his customers go that route.
Our first dish, the Seared Sea Scallops ($15 small plate, $28 full entree), was remarkable, and set high expectations for the rest of dinner. Light and crispy on the outside, the scallops illustrated Thomsen’s subtle way with truffles. The scallops were swimming in a truffle “nage,” a vegetable stock made with white wine that is put into a blender while hot and emulsifies with the addition of butter. Add chanterelle mushrooms and Thomsen’s celery root and Yukon Gold potato puree and the entire dish was brimming with an earthiness that begged for a Burgundian-style pinot noir.
But the pairing suggestion was a 2008 Cakebread Chardonnay, which in my opinion has too much oak for a dish of such subtlety, so we skipped wine. While you can order 3-ounce pours for half the price of a full, 6-ounce glass of wine ($5 as opposed to $10), we only ordered two suggested wines for fear of racking up a huge bill. We did, however, order the 2006 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon ($9, $18) with the Roasted Millbrook Venison Loin ($18; $36). It was a home run.
Thomsen makes a black truffle sauce by reducing cabernet sauvignon and adding it to a stock made with venison bones. Then he chops in black truffles and lays the delicate slices of venison on a bed of sweet potato puree and glazed turnips. Both veggies complement the sweet and bold fruitiness of the Cliff Lede wine. It was delicious.
So was the silky Castroville Artichoke Soup ($7, $12), sprinkled with crispy prosciutto and roasted tomatoes. Artichokes are tough to pair with wine because they contain a chemical compound called cynarin, which tricks our taste buds into making wine taste too sweet or even bitter. But a crisp white, like the suggested Groth Sauvignon Blanc ($5, $10), has enough acidity to stand up to the soup and even cut through its richness. I was impressed.
I felt that way about almost everything. Perhaps the only dish that didn’t floor me was the Pacific Striped Bass ($13, $25), a simple, grilled filet on a bed of room-temperature quinoa cooked in orange juice and studded with currants, toasted pine nuts and diced cucumbers and red peppers. It was pleasant for hotel spa food — Chef Thomsen’s term, and one he’s not too fond of — but was quickly overshadowed by the Classic Chocolate Souffle ($12.50).
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