The best (damn) meal I’ve ever eaten

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As I sit down at my table at Meritage, Jan Kelly’s 3-year-old restaurant on Milwaukee’s west side, the group adjacent to me parts with a single recommendation. “Get the chocolate cake,” a woman says. “It’s almost orgasmic.”

When I ask my server, Marie, about the dessert, she responds without blinking an eye. “It’s our specialty. It has three layers, with flourless chocolate cake on the bottom, chocolate mousse in the middle, and it’s finished with a chocolate ganache on top.”  I don’t really have a choice.

Chef Jan Kelly poses in her restaurant

Kelly started as a chef at her brother's restaurant, the Hobbit in Orange County, California

For people who take food seriously, Kelly doesn’t disappoint. Aside from her mouth-watering desserts, her menu features among the best produce and meats of all Milwaukee restaurants, and she brings out the flavors of those ingredients without overwhelming spices and sauces. She says the secret to her success doesn’t lie in her ability to cook, but rather in the freshness of the food she serves.

Unlike most restaurants in Milwaukee (or in the U.S. for that matter), Meritage’s menu changes with the seasons to accommodate seasonal ingredients. “There were a lot of customers at the beginning who were like, ‘No, what do you mean you’re going to change the menu?’ But it’s kind of a fun thing. They’ve embraced it,” she explains.

Not surprisingly, the first course legitimizes her reasoning: thick-cut fries with truffle aioli and crumbled lamb chorizo. The aromas are entirely autumnal, in particular, the scent of freshly cooked potatoes with a slight kick turns an ordinary dish into something extraordinary. In fact, Kelly believes all of her dishes do just that: take a fresh product and allow its own flavor to stand out without the help of sauces or spices.

Michael Engel, a longtime friend of Kelly’s as well as chef and owner of Pastiche Bistro in Milwaukee, has been tasting Kelly’s creations for the past 15 years ⎯ and went as far as to call her “one of the best chefs” he’s ever known. “She has a really wonderful palette,” he says. “Her food is always very balanced in flavors and all the little tastes and everything [go] together.”

Kelly has been preaching freshness for years. A California native and daughter of restaurant owners, she has known good food her entire life. She also understands that seasonal food doesn’t just provide flavors and smells — it allows people to enjoy their seasonal favorites while broadening their palettes with new tastes. “I love that big change,” Kelly explains. “The subtle change is fun, but it’s that big season change where it gets really cool. Now we get to cook stew, now you’re back into going hearty dishes, braised things. Then in the summer, we get to grill again.”

Speaking of “braised things,” the entrée couldn’t have come at a better time. My dish: braised lamb shank with ricotta gnocchi, kale, caramelized onions and roasted garlic, paired with a Stephen Vincent zinfandel from California. On a chilly and windy November night, there might not be a more appropriate dish. The kale soaks up all the flavors from the meat, which is so tender it can be eaten with a spoon. Not a single flavor competes with another; instead, they blend together to create a hearty, warm and delicate dish. “These dishes aren’t different just for the sake of being different — it’s harmonious flavors,” explains Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dining critic, Carol Deptolla. “Delicious food is universal.”

Like the balance of flavors found in each dish, Meritage itself combines multiple influences to create a remarkable dining experience. The name of the restaurant, for example, comes from a term coined by California winemakers that categorizes wines blended in the Bordeaux style. However, it holds a more important meaning to Kelly. Though her love of wine played a role in choosing the name, she says she wanted to emphasize the relationship between the food, the wine, and most importantly, the customers’ overall culinary experience.

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