Wide variety compromised by some
puzzling choices

The Merit Grill’s Carne Asada substituted sirloin for skirt steak, but the salsa, rice, and succotash were terrific.

By Paula Johnson

Factory Man
PIP (Palate In Progress) and I arrived on a Tuesday evening to assess the merits of Merit Grill. We had been there before with friends, and wanted to see if and how this meal would differ. As I looked at the menu I recalled what I had been told on the previous visit we made to Merit Grill — that the chef, Ricardo Rodriguez, had extensive experience working at the Cheesecake Factory, so what I read made a little more sense. The Cheesecake Factory is known for its middle-brow versions of more than 250 dishes — the menu is seriously titanic-sized, and the charm for a lot of people is that you can sample almost any type of cuisine you’re in the mood for. Merit’s menu is not titanic in size, but it reflects the chef’s interests and experience there. Merit’s website states chef Rodriguez “masters four different types of cuisine: American, Mexican, Italian, and Asian.” The menu features dishes from these cuisines plus a few more, in the style of the aforementioned Cheesecake Factory both in scope, but also in the way that often Merit’s dishes aren’t classic examples of those cuisines.

A few cases in point: He adds strawberries to a classic Tomato Caprese salad, spices up and adds feta cheese to a pasta with Vodka “Diablo” sauce, onions and tomato to a Fettucine Alfredo, and most puzzlingly, does a Chicken Piccata blackened style. Are you free to interpret, tweak, and adapt classic recipes? Of course, but I wonder at the seeming randomness of some of these choices. I didn’t try the Piccata because what I love about that dish — the lightness of it, the fresh lemon and bright astringent caper taste — would be subsumed and a real mismatch for spicy blackening, something
I also love.

On our previous visit, PIP and I both sampled pasta dishes and found neither to be remarkable. Merit doesn’t make their pasta in house (sadly most places don’t), and neither dish we had was on the current menu, though nine pasta dishes were, including two orzo dishes. Notably, one of my favorites, Spaghetti Bolognese, was described with a classic preparation unadulterated by other ingredients, and I was tempted to try it for that reason. However, PIP and I had just returned from a quick trip to Phoenix where I gleefully ate my weight in Mexican food, so I opted to try some of Merit’s Mexican influenced offerings. But first, I wanted to try Merit’s signature soup, a Bourbon Mushroom ($3.50). PIP selected the soup of the day, a Tomato Basil ($3.50). The Tomato was truly delicious, with a nice savory complexity. The Mushroom reminded me of a good version of a classic canned cream of mushroom, not complex, but filled with mushrooms and satisfying.

Ceviche for an appetizer and Carne Asada for an entree were my Mexican mood choices. (Merit also offers a few taco choices at the tail end of the menu, and might be a good appetizer possibility). The Ceviche ($12.00), attractively presented in a martini glass, proved a bit of a challenge for the server to balance, bringing up a note on service. Our server, while lovely and personable, had no knowledge of most of what we asked about and not much training. As to the Ceviche, the tender shrimp and avocado with nicely spiced tomato chunks was quite good. It was served with tortilla chips AND grilled bread slices, which were extraneous and not well matched. They were quite good with PIP’s tomato soup however.

Carne A-SAD-a
Carne Asada, translated as “grilled meat” is traditionally marinated, and made with skirt or flank steak, and though I had never had it, carne asada can be made with a piece of sirloin. Merit’s menu described “Skirt Steak, Caramelized Onions, Cilantro, Mexican Rice, and Corn Succotash, $27”. Skirt steak is a long, flat cut of beef steak from the plate, noted for its flavor rather than tenderness. It’s deliciously marbled with fat, and if I see it on a menu, it’s going to be on my plate. Or so I thought. Remember that sirloin I mentioned? Yep, that’s what was on my plate, not the promised skirt steak. There is simply NO EXCUSE to substitute without informing the diner. It insults your guest by assuming they won’t know the difference. I certainly did, and I certainly was. What I can say is that if I had been served the promised cut of meat, I would be able to declare the dish a delicious success. The accompanying tomatillo salsa, rice, and excellent fresh succotash were terrific. But, like in the Olympics, when you perform an illegal substitute move, no points will be awarded by the judges.

Fish Story
PIP didn’t fare much better with his perennial favorite Fish and Chips ($17.00), usually a pretty safe bet. The homemade chips and coleslaw were seriously good, but the pieces of cod were terrible – mushy and greasy from under cooking. Our dessert, a Chocolate Tres Leches layer cake (8.50) was a generous slice to split, and worth the price.

As we reviewed the meal, we both agreed that Merit Grill was at times so close to doing a good job. What they did well, we enjoyed. While I take no joy in the criticisms I’ve offered, I can’t find an excuse to not serve what the menu states, or not be more thoughtful with combining flavors and ingredients that simply don’t match, and to ignore server training. Merit Grill has merits, but I’m not sure it merits another try…

Cuisine 40% out of 50%
Value 23% out of 25%
Service 20% out of 25%
Total Rating Score: 83%

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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