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Creating a better blend

Meritage mixes it up in Buckhead

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Anyone who's ever worked in the restaurant industry knows it can be a grueling, heartbreaking business. A successful restaurant is a precarious balancing act requiring more than a focused, creative chef or a skilled, watchful management team. Intangibles like luck and chemistry also come into play. When one or more of these things is out of kilter, it can make for a discouraging experience for all concerned (especially the customers). Often owners of flailing restaurants simply throw in the towel and call it a day.

Which is why it is such a rare pleasure to revisit Meritage in Buckhead and find things have changed for the better.

I ponder all this as I sit in the restaurant's upstairs dining room, savoring its rendition of bouillabaisse ($17.95). The dish is a fragrant muddle of delicate wolfish, fresh scallops and flavorful, tender strips of fennel. Saffron aioli, served on the side with crostini, imbibes a heady perfume to the already aromatic tomato broth. It's amazing what a switch in chefs can do for a place.

General manager Christian Favalli and former chef Patrick Kelly assumed the unenviable task of taking over the quaint, oddly canonized house vacated by Bacchanalia when it relocated to the Westside over two years ago. They gave the restaurant's sedate little rooms new verve and spunk with silver walls and engaging art, including a racy light sculpture suspended between the staircase that brought to mind figs or pomegranates, if you catch my drift. But the food was a mishmash of cultures and flavors that never quite worked. And it wasn't cheap either. I ate there twice and, unimpressed, gave up on the place.

When word reached me through the foodie grapevine that Meritage (rhymes with heritage) had a new chef and a completely revamped menu, I gave it another shot, and I'm glad I did. Chef Nik Mavromatis, originally from New Zealand, has brought a simplicity and affordability to the menu that speaks to the times. The menu is divided into three sections: tapas, pasta and entrees.

The tapas (not one over $5.95) are perfect for rotating around the table with friends, enjoying a nibble or two before passing the plate along and trying something else. An unorthodox spanakopita ($3.95) has a deep-fried pastry shell encasing invigoratingly spiced greens and feta. A mezze plate ($4.95) includes two tasty grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts and currants, as well as a smoky eggplant dip and a slab of fried kefalotiri cheese that could have been warmer.

The only real disappointments among the tapas are the escargot ($4.50) served in a bland brandied cream sauce that masks any of the agreeable brininess of the snails.

Among the pastas, the butternut squash gnocchi ($13) wins the loudest kudos. Served with pancetta, zucchini, sage and toasted almonds, the sweetness of the squash shines through the little misshapen gnocchi while the other ingredients lend texture and earthy, supportive flavors. The simplest dish on the whole menu, angel hair pasta with fresh tomato and basil sauce ($11), falls flat. Without a trace of garlicky punch or salty oomph, the sauce requires some rethinking.

Entrees have a familiar but appealing ring, and most of them lean toward the comfort food genre. Roasted rack of lamb ($19.95) is served over barlotti beans (in the family of pintos) braised with rosemary and spinach in a garlic yogurt sauce. The sauce, like the angel hair pasta, could use more get-up-and-go. A grilled New York strip ($19.95) has a pleasing char and a juicy interior, but its gorgonzola sauce needs more zip, and the grilled radicchio served alongside requires a bit too much sawing to get a decent bite. The bouillabaisse mentioned above remains my favorite entree here.

It's time once again for me to step onto my cheese soapbox. I'm glad to see three cheese plates ($4.95 each) on the dessert menu, but with all the luscious samples available out there, couldn't they find something less yawn-inducing than Gorgonzola di Cremosa or a truly dull Cacciotta d'Abruzzo? C'mon, gang! If Italian cheese is your thing, try Pecorino Ginepro, Robiola due Liotta or Marzolino. There's so much superior cheese available in Atlanta these days, why waste time with the mediocre stuff?

My favorite dessert here by far is the Greek yogurt panna cotta, a smooth, viscous creation well-paired with poached figs stuffed with ground almonds and pistachios. Other good choices include an upside down apple-polenta cake, and a chocolate bread pudding with chocolate truffle ice cream (all $4.95).

One thing I'm happy to see unchanged is the quirky, readable wine list. Any list that likens drinking champagne to "sharing a Jacuzzi with Marilyn Monroe and Jim Carey" is OK in my book. The range of reds is particularly strong, including a good meritage selection (the restaurant's namesake is a made-up word denoting American wines blended from the "noble" Bordeaux grape varieties). With such a commitment to wine, I'm hoping that soon Favalli and company will invest in better wine glasses, and train the servers not to pour so much wine into said stemware.

Gripes aside, it's a treat to see this restaurant resuscitate itself from near-oblivion. The little parking lot crammed with cars out front lets me know I'm not the only one to make this discovery. So I'll just park on a side street and be back for that bouillabaisse again mighty soon.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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