It’s not just orange juice but freshly squeezed. And it’s not just salmon but grilled fresh salmon with savory, sun-bright saffron sauce in which you can actually taste the saffron. It’s not just lo mein but roasted-duck-and-Portobello-mushroom lo mein. It’s not just quadruple-decker chocolate cake but quadruple-decker Tcho chocolate cake with a pistachio-fluff layer before noon.
And it’s not just a waffle but a hearty whole-grain waffle made to order by a white-aproned cook behind a gleaming marble and mahogany bar, surrounded by soaring columns and two-story ceilings whose arches invoke the Moors and whose acoustics ennoble a jazz pianist’s lilting riffs. From pitchers and urns pour warm maple and chocolate syrups, whipped cream, and peak-of-perfection ripe raspberries to top the waffles as the dining room, outfitted in muted greens and browns to match the scenery outside, resounds with “Strangers in the Night.” The hot blond half-moons turn out to be not just crispy outside and airy-chewy inside but the best waffles that Tuffy and I have ever tasted. Like everything here, they come in not merely sufficient portions but my favorite portion size: unlimited. Moreover, much of it — the meaty ruby and carnelian Chioggia beets with goat cheese, say, or the sage-apple-chicken sausages or the smoked Gouda wedges, chosen from platters that also include date paste, Camembert, and Swiss — is not just sumptuous but embodying the kind of sumptuosity that makes you want to shut your eyes and slide out of your chair onto the floor. But then you’d miss the view. Which isn’t just breathtaking but, through a row of grand windows, is one of the East Bay’s most historic and highly prized: a surrealistically supersized panorama that starts with tennis courts and venerable Canary Island palms, then displays Berkeley as a glittering fairy-tale village. Bridges, silver-blue bay, peaks and metropolis shimmer beyond, under a sky so wide and high as to coax you into believing God exists. That’s worth a lot. A lot.
One of the many ways in which to categorize human beings is this: Some would buy a $56 brunch only to celebrate the most special of occasions. Others would never buy a $56 brunch: wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Others do it at the drop of a hat.
When it comes to what we’ll pay for meals, we all have limits beyond which everyone else’s look outrageous. That’s why, suddenly finding ourselves eating a $56 Sunday brunch at Meritage — the new restaurant at the Claremont Hotel Club & Spa — we who belong to the second category scope out this place like spies or anthropologists, eyes darting back and forth from seafood reef to omelets-to-order station to Kenwood Yulupa champagne that pours and pours and pours. Wandering past the carved-to order meats, drifting from island to island and filling our plates with fresh mozzarella, mellow-sweet roasted butternut squash, arugula-endive-walnut-Gorgonzola salad, poached eggs, sweet-pepper hash, crab siu mai, and sparrow-size prawns, we wonder who on earth believes they deserve so much luxury — and who might think this isn’t even luxury at all.
Meritage opened last month, replacing Jordan’s and joining Meritage at Boston’s Boston Harbor Hotel and Le Meritage at New Orleans’ Maison Dupuy, based on a concept developed by Boston Harbor chef Daniel Bruce. Helming the Claremont’s Meritage, executive chef Josh Thomsen is a Culinary Institute of America grad whose past gigs include the French Laundry, the Hotel Bel Air, and the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Sourcing 98 percent of his ingredients locally, Thomsen calls what he serves “seasonal farm-to-table cuisine.” Only the Sunday brunch is a buffet. Other meals here are à la carte, their ever-shifting menus organized according to the wines with which each dish — available full-size or half-size — is paired, divided into sections by further subdivisions of red and white: sparklers, light whites, full-bodied whites, fruity reds, spicy-earthy reds, and robust reds. Thus a typical dinner menu includes Sonoma goat-cheese-potato terrine with baby beets and aged balsamic syrup, paired with a 2008 Taz Pinot Gris; cider-braised Kurobuta pork belly with Brussels sprouts, black-eyed peas, and pickled onions, paired with a 2006 Cinnabar Mercury Rising; and Niman Ranch filet mignon “Rossini” with Hudson Valley foie gras and red-wine reduction, paired with a 2006 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee.
“I go to farmers’ markets on Fridays and Saturdays to choose the menus” for the Sunday brunches, Thomsen tells me. Asked to list his favorite ingredients, he offers pork belly, chives, and scallops, which he calls “so versatile that they can hold up to seared foie gras or pair up with a light smoked-salmon-fingerling-potato salad with Osetra caviar.” In winter, he craves tomatoes: “I can’t wait for the season to start.”
At our Sunday brunch, some diners are clearly celebrating, but for others this is just another meal. A tasty one, okay, but they lope to the dessert bar as if to a turnstile and do not goggle at its shining terraces of cheesecake, miniature éclairs, chocolate cake, knockout fruit cobbler, lemon-meringue and pecan tartlets topped with hollow Art Nouveau candy globes, and red-velvet cake topped with jaunty vertical white-chocolate stars. (Granted, the Meritage’s desserts tend to be a bit overstated and less subtle, thus less sumptuous, than its entrées, but at this level that’s splitting hairs.) And when hyper-attentive waiters offer refills and remove and replace plates and silverware, these drop-of-a-hatters act as if they are treated this way every day.
A guilty pleasure of buffets is that they don’t just let you eat your fill: They let you eat, together, foods that society decrees should never meet. At cheap buffets, this means chow mein and chili mac. At Meritage, it means Israeli couscous and Chinese steamed water-chestnut dumplings and prime rib. With no trouble at all you could get used to this.