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First bite of a New Year: Merende in Tacoma

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Jan. 8, 2009 at 6:02 am | No Comments »
January 8, 2009 6:02 am

This is my third and final First Bite report of the week. All will be published in Friday’s GO section.

Il Trattoria di Merende Restaurant

Where: 813 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

Phone: 253-722-1993


Menu overview: Flatbreads, full dinners and a small-bites menu.

Price: $-$$(entrees under $30)

The small-bites restaurant may be new, and the owners, new to the restaurant business, but the kitchen is manned by Jeff Bishop, a recognizable toque from around town – formerly of Il Fiasco on Sixth Avenue and Brix 25 in Gig Harbor.

You can go big or small at Merende – a great strategy to attract all kinds of diners. The menu features flatbreads, full dinners and a small-bites menu.

On my visit, a dining partner had to depart for a movie at the Grand. We ordered hastily from the small-plates menu, and the server guided us through a few choices that would come fast (and they did, as promised). We appreciated her guiding us, she was intent on making sure our companion made his show. And her service, throughout the meal, was friendly and knowledgeable.

After our time-pressed dining partner left, I lingered with another friend over our wine and dessert. I like a restaurant where dining options are offered in tiers. Eat a little very quickly and rush off to your event, or linger longer with a more substantial plate, dessert and a port to top off the night – Merende is good for all of the above.

Diners will recognize Bishop’s food from him previous restaurant tenures – incredible ingredients, but prepared simply and straightforward. Diners who ate at Il Fiasco during his tenure there will recognize his grilled asparagus with pumpkin seed oil.

The larger-plates menu looked downright delicious – beef short ribs ($26), rabbit and mushroom risotto ($22) and braised lamb shank ($24) looked very appealing.

Flatbreads, priced at $10-$14, also got my interest.

But we stuck with the small plates – a very interesting selection of nibbles.

We started with a mushroom risotto ($6), a sizable mound, deliciously creamy with goat cheese and studded with wild mushrooms. It was the hit of the table. Sautéed calamari calabrase ($8) had a nice kick to the sauce –from hot peppers – and was laced with a just-right dose of garlic. Absolutely delicious.

White bean salad with garlic and herbs ($5) was straightforward, and perhaps a bit bland, and seemed one of those menu items that perhaps aims to please everyone’s palate (cheap to prepare and filling). Garlic seared white prawns ($9) with marinated fennel was also a bit of a miss, with slightly overcooked prawns and fennel that lacked flavor. I liked the composition, though.

The presentation was not fussy and actually was a bit one-dimensional with the same garnishes used for each dish. But Bishop’s emphasis is on ingredients and flavors, not fancy presentation.

The restaurant has a gorgeous bar and is a beautiful room with exposed brick and great overhead lighting, but I wonder why a restaurant would select a light-colored carpet for the dining room? It’s only been open for a few weeks, and the carpet is already showing wear. How unfortunate. Extending the beautiful tile into the dining room would be a good call.

On a next visit, I would spend more time perusing the wine menu. Dessert also is an interesting selection for the end of a meal. I nibbled on an orange saffron cake ($6) that was buttery, rich and divine. Next time, I’ll linger even longer.

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