Friday, October 25, 2013

Playing Hooky

What do you mean you can't come to the phone? What are you doing? It's the middle of the afternoon! Don't make me speculate!

Pru's phone message was hysterical, but there was nothing to speculate about.

A friend and I had planned to drive out to the river to have lunch at Merroir, a Friday afternoon treat to ourselves.

He drove while regaling me with stories of what the area near West Point reminded him of, namely his childhood in rural North Carolina.

There was one tale of how he was taught to clean catfish as a Boy Scout: nail the fish to a tree (!) by its head, then make an "X" under the gill and use pliers to peel off the tough skin.

"It was okay at the beginning of the summer, but by mid-summer the stench of old fish heads on tree trunks was pretty bad," he said with masterful understatement.

We stopped for gas at a station where the sign read, "Fish/hunting licenses. Bait & tackle. Tornados-nachos-sandwiches."

When he asked if I needed anything, all I could request was how a store sold tornadoes.

Arriving at Merroir, we debated on eating outside under the big tree, but decided it wasn't quote warm enough. That said, others arrived and were braver, although one had on a puffy ski jacket with the hood on and another table had brought their own blankets, which they wrapped around themselves like cocoons.

Up on the porch, we found only one couple and they invited us to share the space with them.

Also from Richmond, she admitted she had called in sick today so she and her husband could have an adventure together.

That said, they had checked Yelp before coming out (you know, because strangers' opinions matter) and did not eat either raw oysters or lamb.

Friend and I settled in with a view of the incredibly blue river through the plastic shades and began our multi-course lunch.

We'd order a couple of things and our server would try to take our menus and we'd insist we weren't full, until she gave up even trying.

The music was odd, everything from Led Zeppelin to the Shins so I finally had to ask, sure that they were no longer playing owner Ryan Croxton's approved mix, as they had for so long.

Nope, Black Keys radio was to blame for the Shins and the Rolling Stones. Still, the volume was good and it could have been much worse, say, Journey radio.

Since it was my friend's first Merroir outing, we started with a sampler of dozen oysters, four buttery Rapphannocks, four mildly salty Stingrays and three briney Old Saltes.

Friend swooned with pleasure over the perfection of the oysters eaten riverside.

Next we got a pound of fresh North Carolina steamed shrimp and the woman playing hooky told us how much they had enjoyed theirs.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing as homemade cocktail sauce," she admitted. "I thought it only came in bottles, like ketchup."

In a case like that, there really is nothing to do but smile.

My friend had to know about the Stuffin' Muffin, a mainstay on the menu and with a direct lineage to Chef Pete's mother's post-Thanksgiving day recipe.

Oyster stuffing, celery, scallions and gravy soon had my friend moaning, eyes closed, "This tastes like everything I ever ate as a child."

A very good thing, he assured me.

The grilled romaine salad came loaded with anchovies after we made our love of small fish known to our eager-to-please server.

The giant crabcake came atop a thick slice of Italian bread with remoulade oozing over it all and almost pushed us over the edge.

I wanted the beef sliders jut to eat from the land for something different and that was all she wrote.

As in, we were full or at least full of savory so our server began working on us for dessert.

Our only option was grilled pound cake with apples, caramel sauce and homemade whipped cream and Friend said yes before I could remind him we were stuffed.

Not that one adult should have to remind another of that, but his eyes were kind of glazed and I knew he was in his first Merroir-induced food coma.

We finally stood up to go for a stroll and prove that we could still move, heading down to the dock area, which seems to sport an upgrade every time I return.

This time, rope fencing had been added to cordon off the river seating area from the parking area, which was fine, but also the dock had been replaced and railings put up on three sides, which was so not okay.

Every single other time I've been to Merroir, my visit has ended by sitting on the end of the dock, enjoying the river view with my feet hanging over the water.

I have shared a bottle of wine sitting there (carried down by our server), I have been kissed sitting there and I've even extended my bare foot down to the water to feel the temperature on a particularly hot summer day (warm as bath water).

Those days are gone, sadly.

My friend didn't know the difference, but I did and it made me a little sad to see how fancy Merroir keeps getting when only a year or two ago, it was the simplest and loveliest place to spend an afternoon or evening eating and drinking.

Not that the food isn't still stellar. It is. Not that the porch and yard aren't still delightful places to wile away hours. They are. Not that paying $15 for a dozen oysters instead of $24 like at the Grace Street offshoot, Rappahannock, isn't still part of the allure. It is.

Stop gilding the lily, guys. Merroir's rustic appeal needs no more improvements.

I don't want to have to nail a catfish head to that big tree to make my point.

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