As I scroll through the wine list, I can feel tears pushing against my eyes.
I haven’t worked in a wine shop in years. Haven’t had a sip of alcohol since I had my daughter. I haven’t been back to this restaurant – Meritage, an Old World, floor-to-ceiling windowed establishment in the heart of St Paul, Minnesota–since the pandemic hit. Just about every important milestone of my life, professional and personal, have been celebrated or noted in the space. Meritage has hosted goodbye dinners and birthday lunches, happy hour oysters with Charlotte Joy cocktails, wine pairing events hosted by Chef Klein and Ray Zemke, lazy afternoons eating truffle fries with bearnaise on the terrace, waiting for friends to get off work in neighboring skyscrapers.
You could say I have a connection to this place. Or had a connection, which is the root of the emotions welling up inside.
The Before: Pre Covid Nostalgia
I started working at a liquor store when I was in college. Back then, I didn’t know a single thing about liquor beyond what I liked to drink at the bar. I came home from a semester abroad, adrift in just about every aspect of life. My brother, the manager at the time, offered me a job. And I took it.
Meghan Markle (or the Duchess formerly known as Meghan Markle) used to have a blog called The Tig. The name of the blog came from the following story:
Several years ago I had a sip of wine called Tignanello (pronounced “teen-ya-nello“). But let’s be real – in the states most people said “tig-na-nello“…or just plain old “Tig.” The itlaliano of it all gets a little tricky, so the bartender kept it simple; it was a glass of “Tig.“ So there I am, with very minimal wine knowledge and I take a sip of this wine. It wasn’t just red or white – suddenly I understood what people meant by the body, legs, structure of wine. It was an ah-ha moment at its finest. For me, it became a “Tig” moment – a moment of getting it.Meghan Markle, The Tig
She does a great job describing the moment of realization of what wine truly *is* and what it can be. My own “Tig” moment didn’t come from Tignanello, ironically, but from a Napa winery Far Niente. I sipped that Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s not a stretch to say I was transported. Since then, I’ve tasted more rare wines, more structured wines. Many of them objectively *better* wines… but I’ve never felt that depth of a-ha. I pursued certifications in wine knowledge and tasting and worked on and off in the wine world for the better part of a decade. While I wouldn’t say that I aged out of it, but my priorities changed, and I slowly became a consumer more than a purveyor. And in St. Paul, my favorite place to consume is at Meritage.
My Favorite Meritage Dishes
I think everything on their menu is magical, but I gravitate between two dishes: cassoulet, only available in the winter months, and moules frites, available year-round.
Cassoulet is the food equivalent to one of Olaf’s warm hugs. It’s a rich, slow-cooked casserole with white beans and a confit with other meats, usually duck and sausage. It is, in Julia Child’s word, “...the best of the bean feasts.” Even calling it a casserole feels misleading. Growing up in the land of tater tot hot dish, casseroles are a mishmash of ingredients where nothing is truly decipherable. But in a cassoulet, the ingredients shine in the layered flavors, nested and married together in a creamy, decadent, protein-rich feast.
Moules frites, or mussels and fries, might not sound like a dish worth ordering when out. It’s deceptively simply, and living in a landlocked state, I’m not savvy enough to buy my own mussels. The moules frites are worth the experience at Meritage, anyways. Served in the steamer with freshly toasted bread and a cone of truffle fries with their bearnaise, it’s a meal that’s so simple, shareable and delicious, it’s worth dreaming over.
And it’s that middle factor that I think is striking at my emotional core. Sharing food, chatting over a good meal with good wine or cocktails, played a huge part in my social life for years. After I had my daughter in late 2019, I knew things would change with her in tow. Just as we were settling into a new normal, with a daycare routine and pumping schedule around work meetings, the pandemic hit full force and lockdowns began. And then George Floyd was murdered, and suddenly the cities felt less safe. We moved later that year, further out than even the suburbs, it feels.
I’ve reflected on each of these factors in different ways. But there’s something triggered by the Meritage wine list that reminds me of how different life is now. The path to finding those good times again feels much more uncertain. Everyone has become so spread out over the past few years–physically, mentally and emotionally–that it feels like I’ll never quite have those experiences again.
And that’s okay.
I can cry over a wine list, and learn to be grateful for the memories, and make plans for my own dinner party.
What triggers your pre covid nostalgia?