Our critic joins the ladies who lunch at Meridian Cafe

Meridian Cafe

(Voice-Tribune, Dec. 14, 2006)

First, let’s get one thing straightened out, Meridian is demonstrably a “ladies who lunch” place. It’s open only for lunch, and the last time I was over there, I think I was one of only three males in a house packed with women. The other two were the chef and one of the servers. But if you think “ladies who lunch” is in any way negative, you need to get over here for a thorough re-calibration.

Under new ownership and management by Heather Yaron and Chef Mike Ross, who had cooked here several years ago and now returns, this charming little spot has gone from strength to strength. An excellent lunch the other day got my “A” grade, even if I did feel a little as if I had wandered into a sorority house for a minute there.

Meridian Cafe occupies the main floor of a large, yellow-brick World War II-era house on a shady lawn. The walls are a pretty bright lemon color with white enamel trim, decorated with a mix of paintings and framed black-and-white photos; there’s a white-brick fireplace in the living room. Undraped tables and chairs are a mix-and-match collection, as are the yard-sale variety of wooden chairs. Tables are set with simple flatware rolled in white paper napkins and tongue-in-cheek kitschy salt and pepper shakers.

Chef Ross has kicked up the bill of fare with an eclectic variety of soups, salads, sandwiches and combinations. There’s a particularly good selection for vegetarians and even vegans, but carnivores can find plenty here to keep them happy, too.

Soups come in heavy, white diner-style coffee mugs which do a great job of keeping them steaming hot, with the slight downside that the deep cup isn’t an ideal match for a soup spoon. On the other hand, even the most stringent enforcer of proper table manners could hardly object to your picking up a mug to eat your soup, or even sipping out of it.

We both ordered a half-sandwich and soup combo ($6.45), adding $1.50 for a side salad in place of chips.

Tomato soup was a thick, red puree with a scent of herbs. A vegan dish, it looked rich but contained no cream, thanks to the vegan philosophy that forswears not only eating animals but also requiring them to work for us. Brown lentil soup was vegan too, a ration of finely sliced onions and carrots, whole basil leaves and tender brown lentils in a thin but savory broth.

A lunch special, chicken mole over polenta – a trans-Atlantic fusion of Mexico and Italy – was delicious, if not quite what I expected from the name: The pale-yellow polenta was coarsely ground and thick, more like artisanal Southern grits than creamy Italian polenta. The tender, bite-size boneless chicken bits carried a thin coat of a savory, brownish glaze, but not the thick, dark, bitter chocolate sauce I’d expect of a mole. Accented with julienne strips of red and yellow bell pepper, onion and tomato, it made a fine lunch.

An intriguing hint of tea added an exotic note to the roasted-veggie salad, a combination of crisp-tender chunks of roasted yellow squash, zucchini, carrot and a little tomato.

“Izzy’s Artichoke Panini” consisted of fresh spinach leaves, feta cheese, a few artichoke hearts and bits of tomato on ciabatta bread, pressed and warmed panini style. It was delicious combination but might have been better engineered, as it tended to fall apart before you could get it to your mouth. It tasted so good, though, that I really didn’t mind finishing with a fork.

A bean-and-grain salad was another hearty vegetarian side dish, a blend of wheat grains, lentils and garbanzo beans tossed in a light sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

We finished with a shared slice of excellent homemade apple pie (3.99), tart-sweet apples cooked until just tender, coated with a smooth and seductive caramel sauce and bits of walnuts, embraced by top-and-bottom layers of very short pastry dusted with powdered sugar.

Lunch was fine, and so was the service. The toll came to $25.37 plus $5.63 tip, more than fair if a bit above fast-food.

Meridian Cafe
112 Meridian Ave.