Tuesday, July 05, 2016

La Meridiana Restaurant, New Hampshire

I visit New Hampshire about twice a year to see my family, usually once in the summer to enjoy warm weather, and once in the winter for Christmas. On every visit, we try to go out to dinner somewhere with my sister near her house in Andover, NH.  This is an area even more rural than where my parents live, and the options are extremely limited.  My sister's favorite place is The Flying Goose, where I've never liked anything but the sweet potato fries.  I really didn't want to go back there again.

So this year, as always, my mom picked me up in Boston, and wanted to stop to meet my sister for dinner on the way home.  My sister of course proposed The Flying Goose, and I groaned.  There *had* to be other options, right?  I did some digging, and pretty much found nothing.  Then she sent me a link for La Meridiana Restaurant.  She'd never been there.  She didn't really know anyone else who had either.  But it was located literally 4 minutes down the road from her house, and she drives by all the time, and was curious.

I looked it up.  What I found was ... interesting.  La Meridiana has been around for nearly 30 years.  30 years!  With the same chef, Piero.  At one time, it seems to have been a full service, regular restaurant, with a staff.  Now ... it is Piero.  Only Piero.  He answers the phones to take reservations.  He greets you when you enter.  He waits on your table.  Once he gets you settled with drinks, he takes your order, and then he goes out back to cook your food.  He brings it out when ready, and clears your plates when you are done.  Just Piero.  His restaurant.

And, well, he makes the experience.  Was it amazing food?  Not really.  But he was an amazing host.  It felt like we were welcomed into someone's home.  Oh, and the part I didn't mention yet?  It is open by reservation only, and, well, doesn't exactly get a lot of business.  We were the only table for the night.  Literally.  So yes, he opened up his restaurant, just for us.  The "Daily Specials" menu that was printed out, with the day's date on the top, was just for us.  It was quiet (sans the Christmas music he had playing), and we were able to talk without any noise or distraction, which is exactly what we wanted, since I hadn't seen my sister since her wedding the previous summer, and had only seen my mom the past two hours on the drive.

La Meridiana and Piero provided a truly memorable meal, not for the food necessarily, but for the entire package.  I recommend it to anyone in the area, and would gladly return.  We had a long, satisfying meal, in a comfortable space, prepared by someone who was clearly doing it because he loves it.  Oh, and the prices?  Ridiculously reasonable.

The Space

We pulled up outside the restaurant, not quite sure what we were getting into.  It looked charming on the outside, all lit up with Christmas lights, but, there were no other cars around, and we were in the middle of no where.  What were we getting ourselves into?
Spacious Entry.
We walked in to find a very spacious entryway. We paused, unsure of where to go, or what to do. There was a hallway ahead, so we started down it.
Long Hallway.
The hallway was long, and we followed it ...
Dining Room.
At the end of the hall was the dining room.  A charming space, with wooden tables and chairs, exposed wooden beams, and cheery Christmas lights.  The windowsills had pine cones, and other seasonal items, as decorations.  There was a fireplace along one wall, but it was not on.

It wasn't a huge space, probably only 10-12 tables, but, as I said, we were the only table seated that night.  We were given a prime table, right near the window.
Bar.
At the front of the room is a wooden bar, stocked with hard alcohol, bottles of wine, and an espresso machine.

Did I mention this place has some serious charm?
Table Setting.
Tables were set with white tablecloths, red cloth napkins, classic, older style silverware, and bread plates.

We were handed menus, and settled in to read them.  This was quite the endeavor, given the length of the menu.  Pages and pages.  Antipasti.  Soups.  Salads.  Pasta.  Seafood.  Meats.  Specialties.  Daily Specials.  Yes, these were all different sections.

The Daily Specials were printed on a paper insert, dated with the day's date.  Just for us.  This was distinct from the "Specialities", a regular part of the menu, which carried the following disclaimer at the start:

"These dishes are specials in many ways; from people whom I respect and they are prepared in slow preparation/cooking, the old fashion manners! When, human beings enjoyed and savored their meal prepared specially for them, in gratitude. If you are not able to wait for the finish dish, please order something else. Thank You!"

I thought that was incredibly charming as well, and immediately set out to order at least one of the Specialties.

Drinks

On our tables was a menu with wines by the glass, half-carafe, or carafe.  Prices were ridiculously reasonable, and there were many options for each type of wine.  I believe there were beer options too.  The daily specials menu also included some alcohol free beverages, such as San Pellegrino (plain or flavored), flavored Vitamin Water, flavored Spindrift sodas, fresh apple cider, and strawberry lemon and limeade.
Chianti. $5.
My mother and I both opted for glasses of wine with our meal, I went for a red (Chianti), she went white (Riesling).  Both of us received ridiculously large pours.  Seriously, look at how full my glass was.  And, uh, it was $5.  $5!

Ok, a $5 glass of wine, at a restaurant where we were the only diners, no way this was going to be good, right?  Probably poured from a bottle opened days ago, the last time a diner decided to get some Chianti?  Probably not a quality bottle in the first place, right?

I was wrong.  It was good.  I really liked it.  Not too big, not too tannic, but fairly complex, and it went great with my meal.  Also, seriously, $5 for this pour?

Starters

The starters section of the menu has several sections: Antipasti, Soups, and Salads.  There are additional starter items on the Specialities section AND more on the Daily Specials menu.

So, lots of choices.  The Antipasti options included beef carpaccio, prosciutto, sautéed chicken livers, steamed mussels, and garlic butter snails.  Soups were classics: minestrone, chicken, or split pea.  Salads included several different mixes with house made dressing.  There were also options on the Specialities menu, such as steamed artichokes and Caesar salad.  The daily specials included more salads, steamed broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, polenta, and wild boar pate.

We opted for two salads, one from the daily specials and one from the Specialties.  My mom and sister wanted a beet salad, which I was happy to pass on, and we all wanted the Caesar.  My sister ordered, saying "We'll share a beet salad", and then she paused, looked at me, and asked, "and you want the Caesar then too, right?", since I was the one pushing for the Caesar.  I confirmed.

We thought we had ordered one beet salad and one Caesar salad, which would be placed in the center of the table, hopefully with some share plates.  Spoiler: that isn't quite what happened.
Assorted Bread Basket.
As our salads came out, a basket of bread arrived as well.  I generally skip bread baskets, but, I'm very glad I didn't skip this one.  It was a stunner.

I was blown away when I pushed aside the cloth napkin to reveal the contents.  There was not just one type of bread in there, nor two, nor even three.  There were 5 different types of bread, all hot and fresh!

On the table was a bottle of olive oil, and a basket with both butter and margarine packets, to use as we desired with our bread.

I started with an onion studded roll.  It was fantastic.  Dense, doughy, warm, and loaded with onion flavor.  It didn't need to be dunked in oil, nor slathered with butter, it was great just on its own.  We all enjoyed our chunks of this and agreed it was great.

Next I moved on to the dark roll you see in front.  It too was ridiculously light and fluffy, with a slightly crusty exterior.  It had a nice depth of flavor, and was excellent with the butter.

I skipped the next two options, both types of white rolls, crusty.  My mom and sister enjoyed these.

The final option was a sliced bread, that I also planned to skip.  We had pasta coming, why on earth would I fill up on bread?  But I still couldn't believe how good the other bread was, and my sister took one bite of the sliced bread, and proclaimed it the best, and broke off part of a piece for me.  It was a fluffy brioche, slightly sweet, shiny on top.  It was great.

The bread basket really was stunning.  This was no generic bread, it was all hot and fresh, and all quite delightful.  I'm not sure where the bread came from.  Piero clearly didn't freshly bake 5 types of bread, just for us.  But it also wasn't remotely stale, and couldn't have been baked less than a day before.  Regardless, this was a truly wonderful offering, and I don't understand how he manages to do this at such low volume.

After we finished our meal, we still had some bread left in the basket, including a few slices of the brioche.  My sister asked him to package it up for us, saying that I loved the bread.  I laughed, but said that I would indeed take it, to make a bread pudding.  When I opened the leftovers bag at home later that night, I had a wonderful discovery.  He didn't just give us our leftover bread ... he gave me an entire loaf of brioche!

(Side note: I did use that brioche, to make salted caramel french toast bread pudding served with mascarpone, from Smitten Kitchen .... it was the perfect bread for it!)
Daily Special: Beets Salad. $9.00. (1/3 portion)
"Fresh local beets baked & marinated with herbs, cold press olive oil, red wine vinegar, shallots, salt."

My mom and sister are crazy about beets, so they really wanted the beet salad.  I had no interest in having any, and told them that.  When my sister ordered, she said that "we'd like to split the beets", gesturing at my mother.  So we were a bit surprised when three beet salads were brought to the table, one placed in front of each of us.

The salad was a mix of greens, assorted baby greens, spinach, and frisee, all fresh and crispy.  There were large chunks of out-of-season tomato, and marinated beets, all drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned well with salt and pepper.

I had a few bites of the greens, but, besides being fresh, there wasn't much interesting there.  No one liked the tomatoes, but my mom and sister both really loved their beets, and gladly took the ones left on my plate.

The portion looked a bit small for $9, and we didn't think we ordered three of them, and it turns out, we didn't.  We were charged for only one, but he split it onto three plates for us.  That made this a $3 salad, and the regular size must be crazy huge for $9?  I think he must have given us more than usual, making this a tremendous value, and a dish my mom and sister were both quite thrilled with.
Specialties: Caesar Salad. $9.25.
"Prepared to order; Romaine, our homemade dressing, anchovies, mustard, canola oil, Worcestershire sauce, juice from fresh lemons, red wine vinegar, homemade croutons, Romano cheese, fresh garlic, Our version of the classic! Thanks’ to Mr. Waldemar New York 1973."

The other salad we ordered was the Caesar, from the Specialities section of the menu.  When she ordered this, my sister turned to me and said, "and you want that Caesar to come with the beets, right?"  I said yes.

After we were each brought a plate of beet salad, a single Caesar salad was placed in the middle of the table.  Why he choose not to split this one, I'm not sure, but it was fine, and what we had intended in the first place.

The salad was fine.  Basic romaine, including hearts and leaves, croutons, cheese, and dressing.  The dressing wasn't a creamy, thick style as I prefer, but instead was a tangy version, made with oil, red wine vinegar, lemon, garlic, mustard, and I think anchovies were in here too.  I didn't particularly taste anchovies, but, the menu description did say they were in there somewhere.  The mustard was a bit strong for me.  The cheese was grated cheese, rather than shredded or large flakes as I prefer.  The croutons weren't remarkable, but my sister commented on how great they were.

So overall, this was fine, but not really my style.  I want a creamier dressing, large shreds of cheese, and visible anchovies.  But that might just be me.  The $9.25 price was fine for a decent size salad.

Main Dishes

The main dish portion of the menu also has many sections.  The first is pasta, where my eyes immediately gravitated.  It had all the classics: tortellini, spaghetti (vegetarian or meaty bolognese), ravioli, gnocchi, agnolotti, and even crespelle (crepes).  The gnocchi in particular sounded great, made from Piero's mother's recipe.  Next came pesce (fish and seafood), with salmon baked in parchment paper, shrimp scampi, trout, and baked cod (another one made from his mother's recipe), with cream and shallots.  You can guess which of those called out to me.  Then came the meat, with veal scaloppine, beef tenderloin, chicken cacciatore, rack of lamb.  I easily looked past those.  Next, a set of "Specialties", again with warnings about preparation time, and included veal chops, stuffed beef, and risotto.  All fish and meat main courses come with vegetables and roasted potatoes.

Then there was the Daily Specials, which came printed on the dated separate menu featuring two more types of ravioli (5 cheese or lobster), pork scaloppine, and rib eye.  

We planned to share all our dishes, but no one else in the group wanted seafood, I didn't really want meat, so, we were mostly looking at pastas.  The carbonara was easily agreed on by everyone.  I pushed for the gnocchi, but my sister really wanted risotto, as did my mom.  Since I wasn't that hungry, I agreed with this plan, and told them I didn't really want risotto, and would mostly just have some carbonara.

My sister again ordered for the group, saying we'd all split the risotto and carbonara.  She finished her salad first, and her plate was cleared away.  My mom and I both still had salad plates in front of us.  The server/chef came out with a plate of risotto and placed it in front of my sister.  He also had a bowl of carbonara, which he also placed in front of her, slightly to the side.  The portions weren't tiny, but they didn't quite look sharable by 3 people.  We were a bit worried that we had miscommunicated our order, and this is all we were getting.  Then he returned ... with two more plates of risotto and two more bowls of carbonara, placing a set in front of both my  mother and I.  We really thought we'd just get a big bowl of pasta and a big bowl of risotto, with some share plates, and each take what we wanted (with me not really having the risotto).  Now I had a serving of risotto sitting in front of me, and a nice man watching expectantly as we dug in.  Guess I had to go for it.  We also figured at that point that we'd totally miscommunicated when ordering, and he thought we wanted 3 orders of everything.  But ... no.  He charged us for only one risotto, only one pasta.  He split it all onto separate plates, but there is no way that this was a single portion, split 3 ways.  What a generous man!
Specialties: Risotto Allo Zafferano e Funghi Porcini $20.00. (1/3 portion)
"Made with Italian rice, saffron, wild porcini mushrooms. olive oil, shallots, Romano cheese, homemade chicken stock, finished with butter (mantecato). My mother taught me to prepare it, at a very young age, ancora Imparo! (I’m still learning) I used to start the risotto, and my mother, coming home from the field she finished this delicious dish. AHHH Buon Appetito!"

So, the risotto, from the Specialities section.

Like I said, I didn't actually want the risotto, but, I was given this portion.  I tried a few bites.  I guess it was fine, but, well, it was flavored rice, just not my thing.  My mother and sister both liked it, my sister saying it was the highlight of the meal.

It was topped with fresh shaved cheese, had a few scattered mushrooms throughout, and was piping hot.  My mom said "it is creamy, and not mushy".  I guess that is a good review?

This portion might have been a bit small for $20, but, if you triple it, then the portion would have been insanely large.  3 plates this size for $20 was crazy cheap, and can't possibly be what he normally serves.  This had to at least been a double order?
Pasta: Fettuccine Carbonara. $17.95. (1/3 portion).
"Flat noodles boiled, finished and cooked with pancetta, garlic, egg, cream, Romano cheese, salt and pepper."

The fettuccine carbonara was my pick of pasta to order.

It came served in a bowl rather than a plate, with a spoon for twirling action, and fresh grated cheese on top.

It was ... fine.  The noodles were overcooked, rather mushy.  The sauce was ok, a bit creamy, decent flavor, nice pepper level.  My mom was impressed at how well integrated the sauce was, and how it didn't break.  She said it was her favorite.

I really did like the bits of pancetta, salty, crispy little bits of goodness and the nice seasoning job.

I felt the same way about this portion size as the risotto.  Many restaurants in San Francisco could give you this portion for $17.95 and it would be normal.  The portion would probably be seen as a bit small, but honestly, it was plenty.  And if you consider this only 1/3 of an order, then it is crazy.  I really have no idea what a normal portion size is, but, he only charged us for one, and we each had full small bowls of it.

Dolce - Gelato - Formaggio

And now, the moment I am always waiting for: dessert!  The entire desert menu is listed on the daily specials menu, so I saw it at the start of the meal.  In fact, I told the server/chef that I was saving room for dessert because I wanted it all, and he told me I was welcome to start with dessert if I wanted.  Believe me, I was tempted!

It was a cold winter night, so I ruled out all the frozen options, but there were three flavors of sorbetto (mango, blood orange, raspberry), five flavors of gelato (vanilla, pistachio, hazlenut-coffee, coconut, espresso), a single flavor of ice cream (pumpkin), two sundaes (a "Nutty Sundae" made with pistachio gelato, topped with walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, honey and whipped cream, and a "Espresso Sundae" with coffee ice cream, espresso syrup, chocolate beans, and whip), and a frozen White Chocolate Mousse Cake.

Yes, I ruled out a lot, but there were still plenty of other options.  I wanted the carrot cake, always a favorite of mine, but it was made with coconut, and my sister is allergic, so she wouldn't share that.  Cannoli came filled to order, but I don't like citrus flavors in my desserts.  Now we were down to three: ricotta pie, chocolate cookies cheesecake, and wild blueberry pie.  My mom voted out the ricotta pie, so, the other two it was.

My sister took charge of the ordering, saying "I'll have the cheesecake, and they'll share the blueberry pie".  Now, really, we had discussed all sharing both, with the understanding that she wanted more of the cheesecake, but I kinda laughed when she ordered it that way.  Of course, we didn't realize the implications of her order until the dessert came out a few minutes later.

Like other sections of the menu, I wondered how he could possibly have all these dessert freshly made and available.  Sure, the frozen items could keep in a freezer, but what about the rest?  I'm pretty sure that they actually are all frozen, and he just warms the pies and cakes up.  The cannoli are likely the only item freshly made, and I'm guessing the shells are frozen for those, just the filling is made to order.

Anyway, dessert didn't take long, and was a nice sweet finish to our meal.
Decaf Coffee. $2.
Of course, I like coffee to go along with my dessert.  There was no coffee nor tea on the menu, and no offer of any other beverages was made, but I asked anyway.  And, I wanted decaf.  I assume a restaurant this small wouldn't have decaf, but, hey, you never know.

Sure enough, he said he had decaf coffee and could brew me a pot.  He also had an espresso machine and could make whatever espresso drinks I wanted.  I opted for just the coffee, and, indeed, he did brew me an entire pot.  He kept my mug refilled the rest of the night.

The coffee was fine.  It was decaf, but wasn't funky or old tasting, and really had a nice, pure flavor to it.  Well, huh.  No idea what brand it was, but, really not bad.

It was served with assorted sweeteners and a pitcher of creamer.  My unlimited refills cup was only $2.
Dolce: Chocolate Cookies Cheesecake. $5.00.
"Cream cheese, sugar, wheat flour, chocolate & egg."

The first dessert was brought out, the cheesecake, and was set down directly in front of my sister.  It was for HER after all, per her order.

I wasn't that excited about it anyway, but did try a bite.  It wasn't great.

The graham cracker crust was soggy, which made me think it had been defrosted quickly for serving.  The cheesecake was a swirl of plain and chocolate cookie cheesecakes, and wasn't particularly creamy, nor cream cheesy.  It really just wasn't anything special at all.

It was garnished with a few squirts of whipped cream, clearly from a can.

The slice was very generous, a real "Parent family wedge", a ridiculous value for only $5.
Dolce: Wild Blueberry Pie. $5.00. (1/2 portion).
"Maine wild berries, flour, sugar, butter & spices."

My sister had said that my mom and I were sharing the blueberry pie.  We expected that we'd get a slice of the cheesecake and a slice of the pie, and three forks, and share was we wanted.  As you saw, my sister got her slice of cheesecake.  And then ... my mom and I both got our own slices of pie.  Full slices of pie.  It is a bit hard to see in this photo, as the slice actually looks rather narrow, but it really was massive, and in particular, seemed to have been cut from a pie with a really large diameter, as it was much longer than a normal slice.

Anyway, the pie.  It had a full crust on the bottom, lattice on top.  It was not a flaky pie crust.  It is a bit hard to describe the style of the crust actually, it wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't a standard pie crust.  It did have a slight gumminess to it, it was somewhat doughy, and again I think this was due to being defrosted and heated up.

Oh, and it was served lukewarm.  At first, I thought it was hot, or at least warm, but it turned out that only the edge was.  Inside was stone cold.  Again, indicators that it was frozen and rapidly heated.  The filling was sweetened little Maine blueberries.  It was good.  It wasn't too sweet, it wasn't too tart, it wasn't too gooey.  Not remarkable, but not bad.

Which is how I felt about the pie in general.  Was it amazing?  No.  But it wasn't bad.  Like the cheesecake, it was served with canned whipped cream.  I easily finished my massive slice, and part of my mom's too.

The $5 price was fine for a slice, but, we also weren't charged for two slices.  I find it unfathomable that he'd normally serve a single slice that was twice this size, not only because of the price of only $5, but, really, that would just be an insane serving size.  He really must have just given us each a full size slice ... right?
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