Buying a successful business sounds like a solid idea in most realms. But in the quirky universe of Philly restaurants, where hands-on owners and chef talent often matter more than brand names, there can be unexpected baggage changing hands along with the walk-in fridge, wine glasses, and range.
In some cases, it's simply hard for the new crew to live up to a lofty reputation. It's a story that's played out from foodie favorites like Django (now closed) to down-home standbys like the Country Club Diner (now just generic).
But Michele DiPietro and Irene Landy have faced the contrary conundrum since buying Meritage Philadelphia at 20th and Lombard 31/2 years ago. They've spent much of their energy trying to undo the restaurant's previous reputation for being stiflingly stuffy and expensive. And for the most part, at least until recently, they had failed.
A bold decor revamp this summer was clearly a stroke in the right casual direction - ripping out the carpet in favor of hardwood, ditching the linen for bare butcher-block tables, painting the walls a cheery yellow, and relocating the bar to the front vestibule window. Entree prices have come down from around $27 to $21 max.
And yet, I sensed serious reluctance when I asked some friends from the neighborhood to join me for a meal at Meritage. Even though I saw the virtues of the former incarnation, my friends vividly recalled a long-ago experience there smudged by hovering service, wine snobbery, and steep bills. They were unaware a major transformation had occurred.
But after a dinner that soared from smoky little bacon-taro cakes to duck consomme bobbing with decadent foie gras wontons, amazingly braised pork cheeks over banana leaf-steamed coconut rice, and an apple bread pudding served alongside a hot shot glass of mulled, freshly pressed cider, they say they'll be coming back often. And so will I.
Because after two stellar meals, it's clear that DiPietro and Landy - longtime front-of-the-house veterans with stops at Tony Clark, Buddakan, and the Happy Rooster - have not simply remade Meritage into their own. They have also uncovered a chef talent in Anne Coll whose dazzling Asian fusion palate and knack for affordable gastronomy should reestablish Meritage as one of the more relevant kitchens in town.
Her emergence adds another promising debut to a year that's already been notable for unsung talent stepping out from behind the broad aprons of Philly's marquee chefs (like chef Pierre Calmels at Bibou, who left Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin). And while Coll may not be a household name quite yet, she's certainly earned her place in the spotlight after several years as Susanna Foo's executive chef on Walnut Street, following formative experiences at Le Bec-Fin and Savona.
The influence of her six Foo years (and the Media-raised Coll's long-standing interest in Asian cooking) is obvious in the menu's many fusion accents. There is an array of stunning dumplings - half-moons filled with foie gras and chicken mousse glistening in truffled brown butter; crispy potstickers with gingery pork and shiitake mushrooms; some round beauties plumped with delicate shrimp and streaked with chive oil - as exquisite as any I've tasted since, well, my last meal at Susanna Foo.
In the menu's tapaslike "Snack" section (entirely $6 or less), there are grilled Vietnamese-style grape leaves stuffed with ground kobe beef, tempura-fried jalapeños filled with gingery pork and cellophane noodles, and a dollop of cool tomato chutney scented with star anise that elevates a warm puck of panko-crusted Shellbark Hollow goat cheese to a level far beyond the usual bar food.
But what separates Coll from so many other fusion pretenders is the command of Asian ingredients that allows her to draw an uncommon depth and elegance of flavors. I've had Thai curried mussels a hundred times, but rarely have the Kaffir lime, basil, and lemongrass popped through the richness of coconut broth like hers.
A confident use of Three Crabs fish sauce is one secret that lends these dishes a snappy backbone, whether it's the pristine dice of tuna tartare, shined with sesame and chile oil next to a tingly froth of wasabi-soy foam, or the cilantro-ginger marinade that gives the hanger steak a subtle tang.
Her use of house-made salts and oils infused with various spices (fragrant with Szechuan peppercorns, chiles, or five spice) helps layer the exotic seasonings deep into a dish, like the slow-roasted pulled-pork sliders, or the pork tenderloin that gets smoked over tea and jasmine rice for a memorable "duo of pork" alongside a morsel of tender belly braised in palm sugar and Xiao-shing wine. The chile oil adds an earthy but subtle spark to a gorgeous seared cod swathed in the light richness of lemongrass emulsion. A simple bistro dish of chicken with brussels sprouts and mashed parsnips is transformed with a Vietnamese pho-spiced brine, and chewy little bits of Chinese sausage studding the sauteed sprouts.
I'd like to interrupt this lovefest for a moment to say Meritage isn't quite perfect yet. Coll's menu is unwieldily large and harbors a few weak spots. The truffled mushroom risotto was overly rich and uncharacteristically one-dimensional. The salmon with lentils was a bore (a point of agreement, since it's already been replaced). The sesame-crusted crab lollipops were eye-catching, but rubbery. And there was an unfortunate pair of bones in the roasted black cod - the only flaw in an otherwise standout five-course tasting menu that was a relative bargain at $39.
Meritage's lightened look is an overall improvement, with a lively bistro feel that better suits its new mission as a neighborhood hang. If only those four-seat butcher-block tables weren't so knee-knockingly small, and the dim lighting had a slightly brighter, sharper focus.
Those who appreciated the old Meritage's emphasis on fine wine will still find some high-end vintages anchoring the reserve cellar. But DiPietro, who worked with wine at Buddakan, K.C. Prime, and Smith & Wollensky, has focused her efforts on finding some worthy international table wines, with 50 bottles around $50 or less, and glasses at $8. In general, these are food-friendly values, not great bottles, but the best include a well-balanced Spanish monastrell blend (Altos del Cuco) and a CMS blended white from Hedges in Washington that was full of fresh, exotic fruit. (Avoid the Capestrano passerina, which was a bit too funky the night we tried it.)
If the wines have been scaled back for affordability, there seem to be no quality compromises coming from Coll, which is impressive at these prices.
Even the desserts, a frequent cut-corner in local kitchens, had memorable flavors, from the silky five-spice pumpkin creme brulee to an intense chocolate-espresso pot de creme with pistachio biscotti and the irresistibly fudgy dark chocolate torte with house-made mint ice cream (and dried-cherry compote) that was like eating a peppermint patty for grown-ups.
For a restaurant that's finally come of age under its new owners, this sweet finish is only the start.