Higher Than the Norm
Meritage is one of the year’s best
|The fuzzy border of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa between Vliet Street and
North Avenue is definitely going upscale. The area has become home to a
number of casual wine bars and restaurants. The end of this summer saw
the arrival of another contender, Meritage, the creation of Jan Kelly,
former head chef of the defunct Walker’s Point favorite Barossa.
Kelly’s new home is at the intersection of 60th Street and Vliet, just
across from the Times Cinema. Meritage replaces the short-lived Indigo,
which took over from the Highlander, a neighborhood fixture for many
years. While the bar still dominates the interior, the tables—complete
with butcher paper on the tops—lend the room the feeling of a casual
Meritage is a term for a blended wine of higher quality than the norm. Naturally, wine plays a prominent role here. But the food is good, too.
The seasonal menu is still in its autumn phase. Among the exceptional selection of starters is grilled goat cheese wrapped in nasturtium leaves, accompanied by a compote of dried cherries and port wine ($6). The sole Asian influence is seen in the Chinese BBQ lamb ribs ($6). Though the ribs have little meat and are on the chewy side, the sweet dark sauce infused with five-spice powder creates a remarkable mating. The ribs are served over a slaw of jicama, red onion, slivered pea pods, red pepper and cilantro. This reminds me of the best items at the former Barossa. Another winner, the leek and ricotta tart ($7), is topped with bits of country ham and a few radish sprouts for a touch of color.
The prices of the entrees qualify as moderate. A $20 rib-eye steak is becoming a rarity in this era of pricey steakhouses. The grilled flat-iron steak ($17) is even cheaper. This tender cut is served in slices, pink in the middle unless specified. It has a red wine sauce with just the right intensity to enhance the meat. Sides are of white potatoes and seasonal vegetables (currently broccoli). One of the few vegetarian entrees (this is not Bay View after all) is pasta pillows ($14) stuffed with ricotta and fresh basil. The tomato and grated Parmesan sauce tops the pasta. An extra $2 turns the sauce into lamb ragu, a fine option for meat eaters.
Standing out from an already fine menu is duck served two ways ($18). The first is a succulent skinned duck breast that’s pan-seared and served in slices. Option No. 2 is more ingenious: an Anaheim pepper stuffed with duck meat and goat cheese, coated with a thin cornmeal crust and fried. The chili is served over a ruby-hued mole with distinction. It’s more sweet than spicy, with a texture compounded from bits of skin from the dried chilies. You can’t find that in commercial products.
Reservations are a good idea, especially on weekends. Though the menu is not extensive, chef Kelly chooses items wisely and cooks them with attention and care. Meritage clearly will rank as one of the best new restaurants of 2007.