By Deborah Grossman
After stints in Los Angeles and at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas, Scott Quinn has traded the bustle of the big city for a Berkeley kitchen.
It’s not just any kitchen. In October, Quinn became Chef de Cuisine at Meritage, the fine-dining restaurant at the Claremont Hotel Club and Spa. The change of scene — and pace — is having a positive effect on the dishes he creates, Quinn said.
“Northern California is more laid back than L.A. I have more time to think about the food I cook and its provenance. This lets me develop more interesting recipes,” he said.
The Meritage menu breaks with tradition. Eschewing sections labeled “appetizers, soups, salads, or mains,” both the wine and food are listed under a newer wine classification called a progressive list. This method is becoming more common for wines — they are listed progressively from light to full-bodied for both whites and reds rather than by grape variety or wine region.
Yet Meritage is one of the few to apply these progressive tasting principles to food as well. A sampler of the white wine and food progression may include crab cakes paired with sparklers; “light bodied” ahi tuna à la plancha with Pinot Gris; “full bodied” filet of petrale sole with melted leeks, green olive and pine nut tapenade with Chardonnay.
Quinn’s affinity for sauces rich in flavor with a light touch of butter or cream underlies the logic of many pairings. A standard match for calamari might be a light-bodied white wine. But, with the added depth of flavor from smoked shitake mushrooms and a fine herb sauce packed with the fresh flavors of parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon emulsified with a minimum amount of butter, the dish pairs well with a red Grenache.
Another notable attribute of the Meritage menu is the availability of small or large portions of most dishes. Diners are encouraged to create their own small “food flights” to pair with mini-wine pours. “Meritage Additions” is a tasting menu with chef’s selection of the day’s freshest ingredients.
Quinn isn’t afraid to stick to the fundamentals of his classical training. French culinary terms dot the menu for specific techniques such as “printanière,” prepared with mixed, fresh (spring) vegetables. Adding a dash of artistic vision and fun to his food, Quinn paints the carrot velouté sauce into the vegetable’s shape on his saddle of rabbit dish.
Elvis bread pudding, the most popular dessert, sounds over-the-top Las Vegas. But Pastry Chef Janine Fong balances the King’s favorites in banana bread pudding with bacon-maple glaze, peanut butter ice cream and caramelized banana.
In this creative culinary atmosphere, Quinn’s restless imagination is configuring more ways to plate the bountiful ingredients he uncovers in the Bay Area.
“I get a blueprint in my head and experiment to balance the flavors. I keep thinking of new flights of food to share with diners. It’s never-ending.”
Meritage at the Claremont is at 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley 94705. Reservations can be made online or by telephone: 800-551-7266.