Meritage at the Claremont

by janet on September 15th, 2010

Having a food blog, even if it is more than a food blog, has its drawbacks. For example, if your work colleagues get ahold of it and realize that your favorite word is not “science” but rather “nom” followed by “fuck.” Another example is that everyone turns to you for restaurant recommendations, which can be slightly pressure-ey.

Especially when you have not done your duty and fully explored the lovely East Bay offerings, except for one. Oh, and another. And another. And of course this. OK but my point is that when I had to organize a work dinner for six, I was quite at a loss, because Chez Panisse Cafe had no openings, so I had to pick the backup. I had a budget of $64 per person with tax and tip included, which meant I could click on the “$$$$” in Open Table. That was fun. But then, I confess I haphazardly chose the Meritage at the Claremont just because opentable said “You’ll get 1000 points for this!” (as opposed to the usual 100 points). Not that I even quite understand what points on opentable will net you, but it seemed like reason enough.

My choice was seconded (PHEW) by one of my colleagues, who was distant friends with the new chef (Chef Josh). Also, this dinner was to welcome three new colleagues, so we began with a cocktail on the Claremont’s lovely patio overlooking their insane view of the bay. I had a yummy white grape martini.

We were then seated at a big round table, in between a table that went through two seatings both with cute but fussy children and a table that was occupied by two distinguished, white-haired grownups all dressed up.

Our server was Mario who was awesome and cheerfully rolled with our rowdiness and excessive talk about poo.

First poo story: I shared the fact that Obama doesn’t like beets, and someone else (of course) piped up saying that they didn’t like beets either, at which point I talked about Ten Exposures Theory, wherein research shows that humans will learn to like any food after ten exposures, as long as it’s not rotten animal protein or feces. ReeRee’s friend is trying it – see this silly vid.

Tomatoes are still in season this year, and there was a special tomato tasting menu. Chef Josh said “No season for me is more eagerly anticipated than heirloom tomato season Purple Cherokees, Green Zebras, Striped Germans, Banana, Brandywines: The names are so tantalizing & varied as their flavors. Among the recipes here you will see instances where we use different parts of the tomato separately. It is worth taking the trouble to prepare them differently, to transform them into something special.”

Despite his three punctuation errors, I was liking this guy.

You know those team-building exercises where you have only some rope and maybe a ball and you have to get people or objects across a thing without touching the floor, etc.? The culinary equivalent of that is the Meritage menu. (Side note in what is kind of a side note already – they pronounce it “Meri-tahj” like Taj Mahal, even though the grape varietal that I suspect they are named after is pronounced “Meri-tage” like rage. Heh heh losers.) There were so many delicious-sounding options (e.g., Sonoma Goat Cheese-Potato Terrine: slow roasted coke farm’s baby beets & aged balsamic syrup or California Lamb “Tagine”: cous-cous, black mission figs, toasted almonds & marinated olives), and each came as either a small or large portion, and we were instructed to order two smalls and one large each. Six people x three dishes x 18 menu items x two size options / one vegetarian / one pescatarian / one ethical eater who won’t eat foie / one crustacean allergy x we don’t really know each other all that well x we want to share everything = potential clusterfuck or brilliance, with all of it taking forever to be decided.

[Note: it was indeed brilliant, with the total tab at the end of the night coming to $63.58 each without us even thinking about it or calculating anything!!]

Two of us gave up and just went with the tomato tasting menu. The others also kind of gave up and just ordered what sounded good, in some cases creating two-person contracts for sharing but nothing more complicated than that.

Second poo story: We were talking about animals, and someone brought up the winner of the Darwin award a while back – a guy who died when an elephant defecated on him, and he suffocated (I helpfully piped up “That’s more like DROWNING, isn’t it?”). The others didn’t believe this was a true story, and it’s unclear, but still.

My meal went like this: Amuse – Green Zebra tomato and watermelon “skewer” (pictured middle) which tasted just like the two components should, but more intensezors. Commanche Creek mixed tomato “gazpacho” soup with Haas avocado and cucumber. Well, we can add the gratuitous use of quotation marks to the list of Chef Josh’s punctuation foibles. This gazpacho was heralded by Mario as “the best gazpacho you will EVER have in your life.” Hyperbole. It was good, and the cheese cracker thing was crispy and creamy. Heirloom tomato salad, with “crispy” North Beach pancetta, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and infused EVO. Ignoring the “” for now, this dish was beautiful (see top, and also sorry for the dearth of pictures it was a night where blogging was not really a legit focus lol). I had issues with the mozzarella being in cube form, also not enough of it, but the olive oil sang and the pancetta, despite its natural advantage as fatty animal protein, was upstaged by the sheer transcendence of the tomatoes. Brandywine tomato risotto & seared sea scallops – “petite” herb salad, baby arugula, brown butter vinaigrette. Alright the quoties are bordering on annoying now, but that’s the last one. Normally I don’t love acid with scallops, and the risotto on its own was weirdage, but when you constructed the perfect bite, for which the “petite” herb salad was mandatory, you started to understand what Chef Josh was getting at. Finally, yellow tomato “sorbet” (I lied) with sweet corn creme brulee. I confess I ate this dessert in two parts. First the sorbet, which I thought was refreshing and lovely but that could be because I dislike sugar. I think I forgot along the way that the creme brulee was sweet corn, or else I might have eaten more of it. It tasted like normal, so I just boldly ate only the top of it and left the messy bottom for all to see.

Other standouts were the goat cheese and potato dish mentioned above, and the other version of seared sea scallops - yukon gold potato puree, farmer’s market mushrooms, & braised leeks.

I’ll leave you with Poo Story #3, which was about how one of us (the family doctor) had to perform “manual disimpaction” (the physical removal of impacted stool using the hands) on kids sometimes, to which one of my new colleagues asked, aghast, “WHICH HOLE?” to which we all asked, equally aghast, “WHAT??”

The Meritage at the Claremont
41 Tunnel Road
Berkeley, CA 94705

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