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[whitespace] Chef Carlo Cavallo
Photograph by Michael Amsler

The Sweet Life: Chef Carlo Cavallo shows off his orange brandied french toast.

Not Just for Tourists

Is Meritâge a 'destination restaurant'?

By Sara Bir

Just what is a "destination restaurant," anyway? Either it's a restaurant that locals make a special effort to visit, or it's a place for people who have made the whole area their destination; i.e., tourists.

Sonoma County is crawling with so-called destination restaurants, in that case, and for a person who lives here, it can be a bit daunting. There are so damn many nouveau-fusion-Californian-whatever places, not a few of which seem to be relying a little too much on their un-updated ratings in travel books to rake in the tourist dollars. And while many of them are very good, it gets difficult to differentiate between them, no matter what particular hybrid cuisine they adhere to.

In this restaurant's case, it makes "Meritâge" an appropriate handle, for the term refers to an American wine blended from Bordeaux varietals--and owner/chef Carlo Cavallo's food is a mélange of continental influences distilled though an American sensibility.

During the year I lived in Sonoma, I never once ate at Meritâge, mostly because I never got around to it. Sometimes, part of the experience of dining at a white tablecloth restaurant involves its being a destination--like saying, "We'll make tonight an occasion; let's go somewhere." Now that I live half an hour away in Santa Rosa and I've finally had the chance to go there, I'm wishing it hadn't taken me so long. I can think of more than a few times that visiting guests and I went elsewhere for dinner and would have been much better off just walking down to Meritâge in the plaza.

Meritâge originally opened in 1999 but was forced to close its doors after a fire earlier this year. Reopened in April, it's been expanded and refurbished, with a gelateria and espresso bar.

We arrived on a Friday evening, though the restaurant only looked to be half full. Either everyone dines earlier there (this is Sonoma, after all), or maybe it was just half empty. We sat outside in a nice little courtyard, comfy and clean, one of the prettiest outdoor dining areas I've seen in Sonoma County.

The menu, which changes daily, is well-rounded with plenty of options, thanks in no small part to the fresh seafood bar, which merits its own menu. You can go for raw (oysters and clams) or cooked (shrimp, mussels--plus they have a tank with live Maine lobsters and Dungeness crab). Seafood platters ($40-$60 depending on the size of the platter) on ice are pretty close to a French fruits de mer, an impressive multitiered presentation. There's lobster, Dungeness crab, oysters, shrimp, mussels, clams, and, in a nontraditional addition, the ceviche of the day.

This is a terrific way to start your meal, especially if you have a bunch of people in your party. Sit outside in the slowly setting sun, sip a glass of Albarino (I'll get to that), and slurp down the fruits of mother ocean.

I enjoyed the wine list a lot, because it had a good selection of wine by the glass--important when you are a party of two with a long drive ahead of you. We started off with a great glass of Albarino, Condes de Alberei ($6 glass), which is Spanish, actually, but I don't think Meritâge held it against us. It was crisp and acidic, brandishing a slight mineral edge that went well with our steamed mussels and their buttery, garlicky broth ($7).

The mussels in question were huge green New Zealand mussels, which I found to be a bit more fishy tasting than the more common, smaller black mussels that I prefer. The broth was a bit dingy tasting and lacked aroma. Usually I love to dip my bread to soak up the broth, but not this time. Instead, we focused on the super tapenade that came out with our focaccia and little crackerlike breadsticks that were similar to Italian grissini.

The salads didn't let us down. I hate shelling out up to 11 bucks at some fancy joint for a salad that sounds highfalutin on the menu but arrives at your table underdressed, blasé, and scarce on the promised goodies. Mr. Bir du Jour got a caesar ($7), which was refreshingly chilled and crisp, and its big, wide shavings of Parmesan obviously came from a block of very good cheese--the best caesar I've had in a long while. The dressing was everything caesar dressing is supposed to be, in just the right amounts.

My salad sounded like the edible equivalent of wearing polka dots with plaid: strawberries, fresh corn, gratings of French feta, and sliced almonds over mixed greens tossed with a balsamic dressing. Corn? With strawberries? OK. The corn was slightly too firm and starchy and didn't contribute much, but the strawberries were dark and perfectly ripe, deeply flavorful and not watery as they often end up in savory salads. The way the firm French feta played off against the almonds, strawberries, and balsamic was terrific. All in all, the scope of flavors and textures made for an interesting combination.

The entrées were well-executed and enjoyable. The dry-aged rib eye with shallot-peppercorn sauce and duchess potatoes ($21) kept Mr. Bir du Jour happy. The steak was nice and juicy and actually redder than his desired medium. And mmm, that sauce was taste-ee, with just a wee bit of carmelized shallot sweetness.

I chose the duck breast over potato risotto with a balsamic reduction ($19). My curiosity about this potato risotto was the deciding factor. Very pretty, precisely diced russet potato cubes (my compliments to the prep cook) stood in for the arborio rice, the clever result resembling in taste a more refined version of scalloped potatoes--very cheesy and creamy. My duck was just a tiny bit beyond medium rare. The balsamic reduction was, on its own, slightly astringent, but against the richness of the duck breast and the creaminess of the potato risotto, that faded away and in the final impression it all worked well together.

I had a glass of Pinot Noir, and I'll be honest here: I forget what. It was a very forgettable Pinot. Probably I can't remember my wine because Mr. Bir du Jour's luscious '99 Richardson Synergy was 5 million percent better, with hints of cedar, rosewood, and ripe, red fruit with a level of tannins that was not overbearing. Great for a big, fat rib eye.

For dessert I got some kick-ass profiteroles filled with hazelnut gelato and drizzled with warm chocolate sauce. The gelato was super smooth and dense, with a pleasingly subtle hazelnut flavor. Mr. Bir du Jour became all flustered about deciding which sorbet to order, so he got a trio with pineapple, strawberry, and lemon. All three were ideal sorbets, fine-grained in texture and intense in flavor, especially the strawberry.

The service was prompt, accommodating, and nonintrusive but friendly. No beefs there, although I found some crusty stuff caked on the tines of my supposedly clean fork and wasn't too crazy about that.

One stray crusty fork excepted, Meritâge has a lot to offer: a pleasing ambiance, a great wine list, and many choices on the menu, none of them too earthshattering. Which is fine--you don't always want to be challenged when you go our for a nice meal.

I'd be happy to make Meritâge a destination for my next occasion dinner.


Meritâge, 522 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.938.9430. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Wednesday-Monday. Brunch, Saturday-Sunday, 11am-3pm.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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