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Maritage is named after a wine category -- it's actually spelled Meritage -- created several years ago by an association of California winemakers. Those winemakers had a problem: Most of the world's truly great wines comprise blends of vintages made from different grapes, most notably those grown in Bordeaux. There are reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec, and whites such as Sauvignon blanc and semillon. But under U.S. law, winemakers are prohibited from labeling a wine as a varietal, such as Merlot, unless it contains at least 75 percent of that wine. So makers of other blends had to designate their product as red or white table wine -- terms usually plastered on jugs of cheap swill.
The aim of Meritage producers is to make top-quality wines without having to worry about federal regulations. Any winery that pays money and joins the Meritage Association is free to use the name, though not many do. It seems most wineries feel the name compounds marketplace confusion, so they've taken to calling their wines by proprietary names like Cain Five, Opus One, or Dominus -- drinks that have achieved cult status.
This merging of parts to create superior tastes is what Gigi Phillips had in mind when she and partner Cesar Calderon launched Maritage. "Our food kind of blends classical French sauces with a Southwestern flair and different cuisines," she says. In a move borne of necessity, they swapped the "e" for an "a" as there was already a restaurant called Meritage Grill in Grapevine. Anyway, this blender bender is settled in the space that used to be Isabella's Italian Bistro, where Phillips worked as a server until she decided to invest in the restaurant.
Phillips says she softened the dining room a bit, adding gauzy curtains, paintings, fresh flowers, and a puffed-up billowy ceiling in a small dining area near the front of the restaurant. But somehow, this spacious dining room with reddish high-backed chairs comes off more like a run-of-the-mill hotel banquet room, one without much distinctive charm.
And though often very good, the menu absorbs this disposition. Take the steamed mussels ($8.95) in a pesto wine broth, for example: The broth is rich and flecked with bits of tomato and onion, and the mussels are chewy and firm. But there's no pizzazz.
The creations that do flash pizzazz stumble a bit from the glare. Grilled salmon ($18.95) is spread on a bed of vibrantly flavored and colorful chutney, a sautéed mingle of potato, red bell pepper, and freshly roasted corn in lemon-thyme vinaigrette. But the moist, flaky salmon was marred by a pronounced fishy taste.
Pan-seared bob white quail had its good points too. The meat was tender, succulent, chewy, and seasoned well. But a slight livery taste scuffed its clean flavor, and the pile of greens in the center of the plate was dramatically underdressed, a heap of leafy blandness.
Then there's the cervena venison ($26.95), a thing that lent some invigorating distinction to this menu. But the thick medallions were served far too rare. So rare, they jiggled when stuck with a fork and quivered when chewed -- too much squishy culinary gore, even for a mouth that regularly craves carpaccio and tartar. Plus, the meat was overly smoked. The saving grace on the plate was a rich side of supple forest mushroom gratin.
One dish was nearly flawless. Pan-seared pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes ($21.95) was firm, moist, pink, and perfectly seasoned, which heightened its silken, fleshy texture. Mashed potatoes were hearty and tasty, but were more stiff than creamy.
Dessert was a blending blunder. Bittersweet chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce was thin and chalky, as if a hearty pinch of powdered cocoa had been dumped on it. The ingredients never merged.
Maritage is a promising venture with solid ideas behind it. It just needs to tighten its formula and perhaps tweak its personality a bit so that the food and the ambience are at least as distinct as the spelling of its name.
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