Meritage restaurant in downtown St. Paul reopens this week, with additional seating for 40 diners and drinkers seeking French fare. The owners call the new space a Parisian-style zinc bar, and it's true that the bar counter is, in fact, cool and steely. But while the original zinc bars were dives--a classy bar counter would have been made of, say, mahogany--Meritage's take is decidedly upscale. One wall of the room is lined with plush booths with dark wood tables; large framed mirrors hang above them, reflecting the crowd; and behind the bar, an absinthe fountain rises gracefully above the everyday bar supplies of glasses and spoons. And then there are the oysters.
The zinc bar is also an oyster bar, meaning cooks stand elbow-to-elbow with cocktail-mixing bartenders as they pry open oyster shells. In true French café fashion, the day's offerings are boldly noted on a chalkboard, a half dozen varieties each from the East and West coasts. (To keep an oyster's origins straight once they're on your plate, one of the cooks tells us, remember that West Coast oysters have wavy, scalloped shells.) The oysters themselves also appear in a showcase lit by a spotlight suspended from the soaring ceiling. And Meritage's promise that their staff are "trained guides" to seafood holds true. When we asked how to eat an oyster, our server leaned forward confidentially, cupping his hand as if he, too, were holding a half shell, and told us how he, as a Massachusetts-to-Minnesota transplant, enjoyed oysters. The basic strategy was sniff, sip, slurp, and repeat. Take a whiff of the oyster to catch the scent of the sea, then take a sip of its juice (called liqueur). Finally, slip the oyster out of its shell and into your mouth, taking a moment to chew and appreciate the different texture of different oysters.
Meritage's expansion isn't just the addition of a shiny bar and briny mollusks; it's also the appearance of several new cocktails on its drink menu. The cocktails are fittingly earthy counterpoints to the oysters' intense evocation of the sea, based as they are on heavily herbal spirits--junipery gin, thyme and violet liqueurs, and, of course, anise-flavored absinthe.
We enjoyed the Jack Rose, a cocktail literary lovers and lightweights alike will enjoy. The classic cocktail was drunk by Ernest Hemingway's narrator in The Sun Also Rises. It contains applejack, grenadine, and lemon or lime juice.