(Sonoma, CA) Just outside the main Sonoma square is a restaurant called Meritage, operated by chef Carlo Cavallo, who we met a couple years ago at a wine event. His culinary creativity and passon for all things food really endeared him to us, so we make it a point to seek out his restaurant when we're in the Sonoma area. Although he was not in-house the night we chose to bring Tom and Susan along, his style was apparent in every dish...

He Fed:
The last time we visited Meritage in 2008, we were given a table out back under the tent (what amounts to patio seating) and treated to fresh dishes suggested and prepared by chef Carlo himself. (It was my first taste of really good calamari and I've never looked back.) Tonight, we come in through the front door and I am immediately struck by the separation of the martini and oyster bar from the main dining area, which consists of casual booths and small tables suited for romantic dinners and quiet conversation. I like the vibe of the bar area being sectioned off, so the rowdier crowd doesn't spill over into the area where people are enjoying their dinners.

I decide early on to pace myself so I can make it to dessert. (Why is it, in a group situation, we are more prone to eating dessert? Maybe dessert is a social event?) I ask our server which dish he would recommend and without pause he says, "The chicken ravioli." I'm normally a bit dubious about chicken pasta because you never know what odd bits might turn up, but I have enough faith in the restaurant to take the leap. I order the chicken ravioli and ask him to pair a nice glass of Italian red wine with it.

While we wait for our entrees, I watch the kitchen entrance where there is a good-sized lobster tank swimming with the crustaceans. Unfortunately for them, lobster is the special tonight (none of us ordered it). Every twenty minutes or so, one of the kitchen staff rolls up his sleeve, reaches into the water, and snags a squirming critter who is promptly escorted backstage for a hot bath and left to dry on a dinner plate. Talk about fresh!

Not much later, the food arrives. My hand-made chicken ravioli purses glisten in a sprinkling of tomato and baby artichoke chardonnay sauce. I dig in with my fork, cutting the pasta in two and peering inside. Well-ground chicken mixed with cheese and herbs has been stuffed in the middle. I fork it, swish it around in the creamy sauce and try a bite. The ravioli practically melts in my mouth, the roughness of the cheese and chicken sliding along the top of my tongue, while the wine-spiked tomato sauce hits all the right acidity notes everywhere else on my palate. The earthiness of the artichokes helps lend some gravity to the tomato. Before I know it, I've dispatched two more bites.

I seldom order dessert that is chocolate-centric, and I'm not a huge fan of cakes or pies unless they are out of the ordinary. So, when it comes time to order a sweet ending to our dinner, I opt for the vanilla bean gelato drowned in a tall mug of espresso. The creamy frozen treat dissolves slowly, frothing up like a sugary latte. I use my spoon at first, but after a few minutes the dessert becomes drinkable. It is good but not too heavy. As a friend of mine says, "It fills in the cracks."

Without any qualms, I recommend Meritage for a great meal, consistently. If you enjoy seafood, there are many fresh choices that will be too tempting to pass up. If, like me, you don't eat very much seafood, there's still enough on the menu to entice you and you won't be disappointed. Tell Chef Carlo that Juliet and Jeremy sent you (and watch for his new restaurant in Vegas, if you're out that way).

4 out of 5 mezzalunas
She Fed:
Again, this was another much anticipated meal! Jeremy and I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Carlo-Allessandro Cavallo at a wine and food event in 2008 and later when travelling through the area with friends in 2009, we not only had the wonderful experience of having lunch prepared especially for our table by Chef Carlo, but we were also guests in his home for a tour of his gorgeous kitchen and biodynamic gardens. The tour included a hands-on pizza grilling lesson and an amazing luncheon. I still remember eating the shaved fennel and celery salad, dressed simply with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and the veggies were still warm from his garden. By the end of the meal, Jeremy and I were talking about moving to California for the fresh produce year-round.

We know in advance Chef will not be available during our visit (he's opening a new restaurant in Vegas!), but we walk through the door with high expectations nonetheless. Meritage does not disappoint. Seating us promptly in a cozy booth, our hostess explains the evening's specials (which include a complete lobster meal for a ridiculously low price) to us, waters are poured and drink orders taken. Throughout the evening, the service is efficient without being rushed.

One side of the menu is dedicated almost entirely to the raw bar and a plate of oysters sounds mighty good to me. But I can't figure out what else I want and "just oysters" isn't going to do it for me. Although I briefly consider having more than one order of "just oysters", I decide to go for a more traditional Italian meal. I remember being blown away by Chef's pasta in 2009 and I decide to go meatless and try the gnocchi with mushrooms in a truffled sauce.

These are the largest damn gnocchi I've ever seen! Huge, very clearly housemade pillows of tender pasta are bathing with mushrooms in a creamy truffle-scented sauce. The gnocchi are tender, cooked perfectly and somehow "light" in all their hugeness. The kitchen does not skimp on the baby bella mushrooms either, which is great as I simply adore mushrooms. The white truffle oil adds a layer of earthiness and richness to the dish, but isn't overpowering. I've had overtruffled dishes; I’ve been a bit heavy-handed with the truffle oil in my own cooking and found you CAN actually have a bit too much of a good thing. That is not the case here. The pasta, the mushrooms and the truffled cream sauce are a trifecta and surely the standout of my meal.

That is, until dessert arrives. I order the lemon meringue tart only to discover (and I hate to admit it) it's the closest I've ever had to my mother's lemon meringue pie. I've always said hers was the best, but I believe Chef Carlo and crew may have stumbled on her recipe. Meritage's crust is buttery and light, while the bright yellow (as in fresh, not as in fake-looking) filling is tart and puckery in it’s lip-smacking lemony goodness. All topped with a cloud of creamy sweet meringue that's been torched to dark burnt sugary peaks. So authentic and so pure, it reminds me of family celebrations of years past when I'd request mom's lemon meringue pie. Ahhhh.

We missed visiting with Chef, but we loved the visit to Meritage.

4 out of 5 mezzalunas
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