The Engine Room: An evening at Meritage
It's amazing to see that Meritage has flourished in its location. It sits along a sleepy section of Vliet Street just on the outer crust of Tosa. While pizza shops and wine stores have opened and closed around it, Meritage has held strong for the last five years and revitalized the strip as a destination.
The inherited line-up of equipment is battle-tested and replete with dents and grooves that tell the story of failed businesses. How Chef Jan has breathed life into these pieces and goaded them into producing a quality product is beyond me. Whether because of the kitchen or the prices her customers are willing to pay, Chef Jan tells me, "We'd like to use things like rack of lamb or halibut, but we just can't."
Instead, Chef Jan has decided to make amazing food out of more commonplace produce. On special, tuna with a kimchi pancake and Chinese long beans and a vegetarian special of that same pancake with asparagus, yellow pepper, Napa cabbage and eggplant.
At 5:30 p.m., Chef Jan gave the green light that the kitchen was ready for service by simply saying, "And so it begins."
Hand-written tickets began coming in quickly. I stationed myself on the other side of the line as to not get in the way. With an outsider on site (me) to document the evening's service and observe Chef Jan's process, the staff was all too eager to playfully rib their leader.
The ebb and flow of the evening was carried by a symmetry of banter between cooks and servers. Peter razzed Chef Jan about being a "Beardian" like a tight-knit confidant would a crony from the old neighborhood who has been propped up by kudos and needs to be knocked down a peg.
Chef Jan's response was a succinct "Shuuuut up." tossing it off like the self-deprecating toiler she is. This, however, doesn't slow the pointed darts from the hard-bitten front of house. A mis-plated dish is met with "She gets some accolades and suddenly you can't question her anymore," and while she, quiet and focused, plated a special, Peter looked over and whispered, "Don't disturb the 'mojo'."
Chef Jan retorted, "I build the towers so that they fall while you're walking out there."
"That's no secret," Peter replied, adding, "So it ends up being my fault."
Being sure to get in the last word, Chef Jan bit back. "Well, it's certainly not going to be my fault."
Not to be out-done, Peter mumbled, "Well that's another conversation entirely."
But don't let the joshing discourse fool you. The service staff believes in this food and is happy to serve it. Marie returned to the kitchen, shouting "The lamb dish is being devoured!"
Chef Jan continued to hold court and was "johnny on the spot" with the jokes. An order is called out – "A chicken and a trout!" – to which she followed up with "...walk into a bar."
This reminded her of an old joke about a turduckin that I'll spare you, given that this is a family website.
Sous Chef Clayton handled both saute and grill. Pans of sauces and vegetables lined the flat top and stove. Clayton is that sous chef that every chef wants. Calm. Organized. Positive. He spinned his tongs on his finger at the joint between orchestrating a symphony of moving pans front to back, wilting spinach, sauteing cabbage, grilling steaks, simmering shredded turkey, turning, tossing, sprinkling, mounting. He even took the time to joke with his mentor about whose presence is the bigger curse at Miller Park.
In an instant, as Chef Jan watched her sous, she suspended pleasantries to coach him on the technique for cooking the kimchi pancake and dictated to him what's on order. As rows and rows of rustically plated dishes lined up at the pass, confusion set in as servers (with Chef Jan's help) tried to figure out whose food was whose.
Any person who has ever spent any time in a professional kitchen knows that this is a highly common and almost a nightly occurrence. Chef Jan wore trademark pink glasses and I gleaned that there have been a few "Are you kidding me?" looks that have peered over those rims.
The kitchen went quiet, as the team was now "in their heads." Chef Jan wrestled with baby eggplant, proclaiming, "No eggplant is going to get the best of me." The smells in the kitchen were amazing as food was now flying out. The dining room was full and "compliments to the chef" poured back into the kitchen.
Then came a phrase that will send shivers down the spine of any kitchen. A sound that brought the bustle to a disconcertingly quiet halt. "We've got a vegan!" Chef Jan shared a knowingly ominous glance with me as a chef, who she knows has also been dealt this curve ball.
She huddled up with Marie to brainstorm a plan. After paging through the menu, a light bulb went off when she realized that the evening's vegetarian special also happens to be vegan. Chef Jan has no problem preparing vegan dishes, but admits that a call ahead is appreciated so that she can prepare a dish that stands alone and isn't just an after-thought.
I asked Chef Jan at the end of the night what she would tell someone who was looking to open their own restaurant. She told me that she would never discourage someone from opening their own place but warns, "You've gotta love it," adding that if someone tells you that you have a winning personality and are a good cook and should therefore open your own restaurant, "you might want to go and work in one for a while before undertaking it."
What I learned at Meritage is that there is food that you like to look at and take pictures of, there's food that you mark a special occasion with or try to impress your friends with, and then there's the food that you just want to eat. This is that food.
It would be easy for the rustic menus of a veteran chef who admires her younger counterparts, like Dan Van Rite or Justin Aprahamian, to come across as confused or insecure. But, they don't. When I asked Chef Jan what it was like to hear the news that she had received her first James Beard nomination, she paused and shook her head, conceding, "It was surreal because, I'm not that chef."
But you are, Jan. You are.
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Wonderful environment which can dress up or dress down, and always delicious. The patio is lovely, Nearly weekly hubby says, "How about Meritage?"
This is my favorite restaurant!!! The waitstaff makes you feel so special and is attentive and courteous. I love the fine dining experience in a quaint, cozy atmosphere. Jan and Clayton are both great personalities and aim to please. This is a must go to destination!!!!
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