Saturday, March 7, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Le Meritage @ the Maison Dupuy

I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to the grand opening party for Le Meritage at the beautiful wedding destination the Maison Dupuy in the French Quarter the other night, and the even more distinct pleasure of meeting a Mr. Robert Peyton, whom you may recognize from the work he does for Renaissance Publishing, and who was kind enough to give me a little shout on his popular food blog The other usual suspects were there-- the intimidating powerhouse Mr. Laborde of RenPub, and his anchor wife Peggy, socialite Margarita (..."Dahhhhling"), and my buddy Keith Marszalek of included (whose presence always makes for a really great time)...but you're not here to read about all that. You want to know, I'm sure, whether Le Meritage should be more than a blip on your dining radar.

Well, the answer to that question is a definitive yes.

I'm always so impressed when the hors d'oeuvres at any particular place are delicious. Think about all that time between the moment the food gets off the line, hits the expo, then the trays, and around the room before it finds its way to your mouth. It's really quite a while, considering that at most fine dining establishments, bringing a plate you can actually touch with your bare hands is practically a sin. The fact that everything that came out of that busy, busy kitchen that night (not to mention the fabulous wines that flowed freely all evening) was absolutely delicious speaks volumes for a restaurant that wasn't doing a formal seated service.

One of the first things I dove into was the P&J's cornmeal battered fried oysters, topped generously with some delicate caviar. And as all P&J's are, these were exquisite, moist and juicy. Horseradish gave them that zing raw oyster lovers can't live without, and a citrus zest provided a nice acid to go along with the horseradish to counter the lush mellowness of fresh oysters.

Boy, feeling daring, went for the Smoked Salmon Napoleon, wrapped in a crispy shell of parmesan fricco that he noted was the slightest bit over-salted ... but that impression may only have been caused by the glistening, translucent salmon roe caviar. Never having tasted either (coming from the cultural background I do, I have s
ome issues with raw, but we'll talk about the tasty Tartare later), I'm only assuming, but I think it's a fair conclusion since nothing I ate all night seemed off-balance at all.

The lump crab cake (shown right), served on darling little silver spoons, we
re a huge hit and I couldn't get enough of those things, although I did restrain myself. The crabmeat was well picked (not even a trace of a shell within my group of people), buttery, sweet, and the pieces were robust. The crawfish was just a whisper of wind from the bayou, it was that subtle, but the Creole spices in the sauce beneath the tiny crab cake were delectable and a perfect companion to the whole thing, as were the little avocado and pineapple pieces.

They served a nice arugula, apple, and toasted pine nut salad, cunningly made into the perfect finger food by use of spring roll rice paper wrap, and the goa
t cheese was a welcome richness at the center of each bitty bite. The meaty pan roasted red drum was cut into generous bites atop little "crackers" of fried green tomatoes (below), and the giant Gulf shrimp with pecans, tasso, red-eye gravy, and some lovely stone-ground grits (further below) were fabulous. I know I just finished writing off Gulf shrimp in po-boys, but my beef is with them fried and as fancy substitutes to traditional mores. However, prepared the way they were meant to be, in methods and with flavors that showcase the natural taste of the shrimp ... well, ain't nothin' wrong with that.

I was so wrapped up in conversation that I missed the corn and crab bisque with cognac and leeks entirely; nor did I snag a bite of the rabbit tenderloin, since I still can't bring myself to eat Thumper after owning a bunny as a pet. But I did see the rabbit, and it was a fine sight, I assure you. Tagliatelle pasta was folded and stacked on pancetta, which was in turn stacked on a bite of rabbit so fragrant and juicy that I was actually tempted and principles be damned. However, I was graciously rescued by a server wielding a tray of adorable diver sea scallops, seared but with such a lush but clean flavor. These came on little Asian soup spoons, on a bed of lentils (I knew they weren't capers!) and in a sweet corn nage, all of which came together just so utterly harmoniously.

Before I knew it, we were on the red wines, and the Gulf Coast Tuna Tartare was out. I don't tend to do the whole raw thing as I mentioned, but the tuna was such a gorgeous violet-red-pink that I couldn't resist. How could anything that pretty be unappetizing? They all say tuna is the gateway (and we know me and my "gateway drug" foods) to uncooked fish, and with sesame seeds in white and black sprinkled like fairy dust on that rich hue, who can resist? Avocado and spicy aioli accompanied, and the sesame oil flavor was subtle and delicious.

I missed the black grouper with quinoa and Pinot Noir butter; I also didn't catch the Molasses Pork Tenderloin with the braised beet greens ... but I'd kept my eyes peeled for Le Meritage's Duck Two Ways, which was s
o good that I had it four ways--two each way. Little medium to medium-rare pieces were served on slivers of toasted butter potatoes, with a fig compote being way number one, and a really nicely done foie gras tidbit as way number two.

The grilled quail was excellent, juicy and tender with an andouille cornmeal stuffing, but the flat iron steak with grilled frisee and pickled cucumber was not as exciting as I'd hoped. The distinctive flavor of the cucumber kind of took over your mouth and overwhelmed the beef since the steak was such a thin sliver. But when the last rounds started circulating, I definitely got the red meat dose I always crave. Filet in a cunning little crumbly tartlette of blue cheese topped off with just a dab of red wine jam was an inspired way to present the classic combination of blue cheese and beef or red wine and steak.

The braised short rib with sorrel gremolata (how exotic!) was the Boy's favorite dish of night, and there's good reason why. Tender to the point that it was falling apart like pulled pork on the grainy but creamy bed of pureed parsnip, this just melted. It had that strong fresh herb-y flavor Boy likes so much, which was just an added bonus.

What didn't have a strong "fresh herb" base was actually the lamb chops, which was a pleasant surprise to me. I love the flavor of meat, especially when it's high quality meat, and it bothers me to no end when chefs cover their lamb in so much mint that I c
an't taste the iron in the red center of the chop. It's almost like you want to ask, "What are you afraid of?" and "what are you covering up?" Let the flavor be free! And with a sweet potato, apple, and bacon hash, indeed it was.

All in all, aside from the killer headache that was a result of far too much phenomenal wine (which I paid for in slumming with canned goods the day after), tastings are usually the best things you can do for yourself. I'll definitely be headed back there once I fundraise a bit. I have to go see a man about some duck.

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