Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Feasting for a Cause: Meritage Farm to Table Dinner & Fresh the Movie

FRESH is more than a film, it is a reflection of a rising movement of people and communities across America who are re-inventing our food system. Directed by ana Sofia joanes, FRESH celebrates the farmers that are really making a difference -- individuals like Milwaukee's own Will Allen, whose vision and guidance has made Growing Power one of the most successful urban farming projects in the nation.Fresh is about inspiration -- not scare tactics.The film offers a practical vision for the future of sustainable agriculture -- and empowers ordinary people to take action that incites real (and lasting) change.

FRESH is currently being screened in selected cities (and homes) around the nation. And the screenings are being accompanied by a series of great events promoting local eating and sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability is at the heart of our food philosophy here at Burp! So, when the good people at FRESH asked us to be the official bloggers at one of their farm to table restaurant events, how could we resist? Of course, we had no idea that our dinner at Meritage would be one of the best we've eaten in the Milwaukee area.

Sure, Meritage has a Zagat rating of "Very Good to Excellent" with comments ranging from "a welcome addition to the West side" to "can't wait to go back." They're soon to be named among the "Top 25 Restaurants" this week by Milwaukee Magazine. And yes -- friends have recommended we eat there many-a-time in the past... but we failed to heed their call. Silly Peef and Lo!

When we arrived at the restaurant, we were seated promptly. The host even granted our request to be seated at the window, where we'd have better natural lighting for our photography. Our waiter, Peter, was an absolute joy. Friendly and knowledgeable, Peter put his 25 years of restaurant service experience to work from the get-go. He started off by walking us through the prix fixe farm-to-table menu:
  • Spinach salad with buttermilk apple cider vinaigrette
  • Portabella mushroom pizza with feta cheese, spinach, and roasted tomatoes
  • Our choice of entrees: Bison ribeye with roasted fingerling potatoes and vegetables OR Vegetable paprikash with tofu, broccoli, carrots, and celery root
  • Meritage's signature dessert: Chocolate Lover's Cake
The spinach salad arrived at the table with a glass of Charles DeFere Brut -- a delicate, yet concentrated, champagne with elegant bubbles and a pleasantly toasted aroma. It paired beautifully with the spinach salad -- which featured locally grown (and stored) apples, local greenhouse spinach and red onions, with a delightfully sweet-tart buttermilk dressing.
The portabella mushroom "pizza" also paired nicely with the champagne. Composed of a grilled portabella mushroom cap, tomato-based sauce, sauteed spinach, roasted Roma tomatoes, and feta cheese, this dish reminded us of the sort of starter you'd find served in a Napa Valley eatery. The dish was bursting with flavors -- salty, sweet, and briny -- with the flavor of freshly cracked pepper lingering on the finish. Even the bed of watercress on which the "pizza" was served seemed to complement the dish swimmingly.
Our entrees were similarly impressive.
The vegetable paprikash was a virtual cornucopia of late winter vegetables -- celery root, broccoli, carrots, and tofu -- encircling a mound of rustic mashed potatoes. The sour cream-based sauce was perfectly balanced, with just the right amount of paprika, giving the dish a warm, yet sweet, flavor. The wine pairing, an Argentinian Malbec from Nieto Senetiner, turned out to be a well-rounded, honest wine with a surprising amount of character. Soft spices and pungent blackberry flavor mellowed into an oaky finish that seemed to balance well with the warm notes of the paprika.

The grilled bison rib-eye was perfectly cooked to a medium-rare -- and covered in richly flavored sauteed wild mushrooms. It was accompanied by a generous helping of sweet, roasted fingerling potatoes, more of the roasted Roma tomatoes, and a luscious pile of roasted celery root. The dish was paired with a Wisconsin gem -- Big Mouth Red by Stone's Throw Vineyard -- a wine bursting with cherry flavor, augmented by a bit of pepper on the finish.
And then there was the dessert: Chocolate Lover's Cake. Although we were nearly too full to move, we couldn't resist this sumptuous treat. Layers of flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache came together in a chocoholic's dream that was further topped with whipped cream and a sprig of mint. It was even more perfect when paired with Ramos Pinto Porto Riserva (Portugal) -- an unfiltered ruby port with sweet cherry notes and plenty of complementary chocolate flavors.

Throughout dinner, Peter was happy to guide us through the menu -- answering questions about the various farms that had supplied the dishes we ate, and running back to the kitchen to check on items about which we had questions. Turns out Peter himself grew up on a farm in Dubuque, Iowa, where his father farmed and his mother gardened and captured the summer bounty by canning and preserving. He learned first-hand what "farm to table" meant -- and it's fed his passion for the restaurant business. His eyes shone as he spoke about his boss, Chef Jan Kelly.

"There's no Milwaukee chef better than Kelly..." he crooned, "she has the restaurant business in her blood, and there's no one who pairs flavors quite like she does."

Peter also introduced us to Chef Kelly, herself, who took the time to talk with us about her philosophy in bringing farm-fresh produce to her restaurant table.

Kelly has been involved with "restaurant supported agriculture" programs for almost three years now. She was a founding member of "Braise RSA" -- the brainchild of David Swanson -- an organization which provides the infrastructure for local farmers to easily distribute and sell to restaurants and businesses who support local food in Southeast Wisconsin. She also supports local farms and businesses like Growing Power, Sassy Cow Creamery, Simple Soyman, Yuppie Hill, Pin-Oak Ridge Farms, and Lakeview Buffalo Farm.

"These are not corporations," Kelly commented, "they're people. And we're supporting families, not just buying product."

Kelly suspects that up to 70% of the food she serves at Meritage is sourced either locally or regionally -- which is pretty fantastic, considering we live in Wisconsin (a lovely place, but not one known for its long growing season).

"This is the hardest time of the year," she confesses, though judging from the meal we'd just finished, she's doing pretty well. "Braise is great," she added, "but Growing power gives us balance during the winter months -- fairly soon we'll be able to get green tomatoes from their greenhouse."

Ah -- the thought of fried green tomatoes made us feel a little bit woobly inside. And we couldn't help but feel excited when she told us that they'd be growing Chinese long beans for Meritage during the next growing season.

We chatted for almost a half-hour as we sipped our locally roasted Alterra coffee. It was difficult not to feel utterly welcome -- as if we'd been invited into Kelly's living room for a visit. Of course, that might not be so far from the truth. In fact, our night ended with a hug from the Chef... and the feeling that we'd just done something pretty awesome.


Of course, one night of awesome only goes so far... we need to stick with it... which is exactly what FRESH is all about. One person at a time, making little changes that have a big impact.

Here are a couple of things you can do right now to bring a little bit of "FRESH" into your own lives:

We'll be back next week to tell you all about the movie. And talk a bit more about things we can do to really make a difference. One little bite at a time.

Disclosure: We were not paid or compensated in any way for writing this post.  We were asked to write about the experience by the crew over at FRESH, but the opinions are our own. In other words, the experience really was that awesome -- which makes it all the easier to share.

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  1. Leave out the bison and that meal sounds terrific!

  2. What a great review! Sounds like I have another restaurant destination, and this makes me so excited! Very nicely done, since I feel like I got to eat this meal with you, and be too full for that awesome looking cake... Not that it would have stopped me either!

  3. Rebecca - Believe it or not, we actually took home a good portion of our entrees -- and we were still full by the time the cake came around! But, it was worth it.

  4. What a great write up - I am totally drooling at the thought of your meal. And so happy to know that lots of others will be drooling too as you spread the word on how good local/farmfresh food can be.
    I'm going to see Fresh tonight and can't wait!

  5. We helped host three dinner & a movie nights last summer with Fresh & I found it to be such an inspiring movie.

  6. Looks amazing. Love the pizza, the bison, the CAKE! Want that cake!

    I'm very intrgued by Fresh. I'm glad you told me about it. I'm rather burned out on all of the food industry exposes in books and movies. It would be nice to see something with a positive message.

  7. Great writeup. Love Meritage--loved their bison meatloaf when I visited.

    Fresh is a great work. I found Food Inc to be a bit depressing, but Fresh was much more hopeful and uplifting, especially Will Allen and Joel Salatin.

  8. Delicious you guys! You did a great review as well!

  9. OMG, I'm drooling and I just ate lunch! What a fantastic meal. Lo, I had not heard of the film, Fresh, until now. I'll look forward to it coming my way. Thanks for the heads up.

  10. Maybe we'll catch you at the FRESH screening next week?? What day are you going? We'll be doing our write up on the dinner at La Merenda next week (which was fabulous, btw).

  11. What a good looking dinner, give me that cake!

  12. I love reading about your local and sustainable food activism. Even though you are half way across the country, your enthusiasm is infectious.

  13. Katie -
    I'm thinking we'll probably catch the showing on Tuesday. What about you?


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