by LEN LEAR
The words Anne Coll and “great chef” are bound together tighter than a spool of yarn. If Coll, currently the executive chef at Meritage Restaurant & Wine Bar, 500 S. 20th St. (at Lombard, southwest corner), does not become a celebrity chef someday with her own restaurant, cookbook, TV show, etc., then I’m selling my crystal ball on eBay.
I can’t exactly say I discovered Anne Coll. Although she is not yet a household name, her Asian Fusion creations attracted a following when she was executive chef at Susanna Foo and, prior to that, Le Bec Fin and Savona. No fast food restaurants in this resume.
Meritage has been owned since 2006 by life and business partners Irene Landy and Michele DiPietro, whose restaurant (“Meritage” refers to American blends of wine) had a reputation for being somewhat stuffy and overpriced until Anne Coll came on board in the summer of 2009. Coll’s menu produces one bolt of lightning after another. An appetizer of feather-light chicken and shitake dumplings (three) in a wild mushroom broth with enoki mushrooms ($10) was just heaven. Butternut squash soup ($8) was the most glorious version we have ever had.
Soft, malleable papardelle pasta was pasta-rific with a mound of muscular, perfectly braised short ribs that were long on flavor ($16). And a roasted wild striped bass was suffused with freshness and accompanied by a wide variety of wonderful textures and flavors — sautéed spinach, leek confit, wild mushroom flan and lemon brown butter, very reasonably priced at $22.
A dessert of exquisite chocolate-covered peanut brittle bombé ($9) reminded me of a bumper sticker I saw recently: “Save the earth; it’s the only planet with chocolate.” And a pristine apple turnover with salted caramel and rum raisin ice cream was accompanied by the most amazing, irresistable warm apple cider we’ve ever tasted ($10).
Food-wise, the only joker in the deck was a dish of fried green tomatoes, which were heavy on the ”fried’ and light on the tomato taste. The miniscule rolls, one to a customer, could stand to put on some weight. During our visit last Wednesday night, every table in the dining room was occupied by about 8:30 p.m., which was impressive, and the bar was doing a brisk business as well.
There was one table of four right next to ours who were louder than people who have just been told they won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. But what can you do about supersonic customers who make more noise than unruly two-year-olds? I’d spike their wine with Valium but only if I had a really good lawyer.
Speaking of wine, there is a pretty impressive wine list at Meritage, but I would not order any wine by the glass, only by the bottle. I started out with a glass of Douglas Hall Chardonnay ($9), but there was so little wine in it — only at the very bottom of the glass — that I thought some of it might have spilled out on the way to the dining room. Twice as much would have constituted a decent glass of wine.
In addition to the a la carte menu, Meritage is now offering a nightly four-course prix fixe menu for $39 per person and is prepared for the entire table. It currently includes an amuse bouche of butternut squash soup; seared diver scallop with black bean sauce, potato dumpling and steamed mussels; grilled quail with sweet and sour red cabbage, apple chutney and apple cider gastrique; braised beef short rib with butternut squash spaetzle, sautéed Swiss chard and caramelized Japanese turnips; and a dessert of flourless chocolate banana torte, salted caramel and Swiss marshmallow.
Chef Coll is also offering a four-course vegan tasting menu for $35 per person, but it is available on Tuesday nights only. The menu includes an amuse bouche of butternut squash soup, a fall vegetable salad, wild mushroom soup with cellophane noodles, chickpea and rice cake with sweet and sour eggplant chutney as a main course and coconut tapioca for dessert.
Meritage has recessed lighting, butcher block tables and hardwood floors and some great vintage photos on the walls. Unpretentious and serviceable. My advice: check out Anne Coll’s cooking before she gets to do it only for a TV audience. It’s the yeast you can do.
Discounted parking for Meritage is available at the 5 Star Lot on Lombard between 20th and 21st Streets. We were not able to find out exactly what the discount is. We are fortunate to have a “parking fairy” who found us a spot on 19th Street near Spruce that cost us nothing. Amazing! It’s all whom you know. For more information, call 215-985-1922 or visit www.meritagephiladelphia.com.