February 18, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable

Mesa Grill: The Corn Is Blue

        Imagine going to bed one night your simple, wonderful self and waking up the next morning speaking Urdu. And actually making a living at it. That’s chef Bobby Flay’s story. Big Apple-born, he’d never even been to the Southwest when he began improvising his own lively riff on its cooking. And now he is wowing us at the whimsical Mesa Grill, on a fiercely gentrified stretch of lower Fifth. 

        Flay was just a rough-cut, restless, red-headed teenager when he “sort of fell into the business.” Restaurateur Joe Allen paid his way at the French Culinary Institute, then sent him off to get a job elsewhere because, Allen said, “you’ve learned all you can here.” True, he picked up a few southwestern tricks working for Jonathan Waxman, mostly at Bud’s, then at Hulot’s, but he found his true peppery persuasion at the Miracle Grill in the funk of the East Village. Urdu.

        And what does real-estate developer and onetime politician Jerome Kretchmer know about southwestern cookery? It’s Urdu to him too. But over the years, nursing the Gotham Bar and Grill from near-demise to a jumping success, he’s kept tasting. And learning. (He’s a friend, and I’ve marveled at his obsession.) Now he’s majoring in chilis. And the Mesa Grill team seems to have what New Yorkers want these days: food that is earthy and vibrant (not tortured) in a casual setting. 

        Waggish, playful, even a bit silly, architect James Biber’s design is like a giant toddler’s playroom, red laminated cowboys heating up the banquettes, illuminated pickup sticks (nine aimed every which way make a tipsy menorah), and outrageous taxicab-yellow chairs with tomatillo-green cushions. The pierced-aluminum fixtures throw moving dapples of light on Southwest cuisinary tints – chipotle rust, avocado green, papaya gold – joyously run amok on the walls and big, fat Corinthian columns.

        Through the soaring kitchen window, you can watch Flay and team in full frenzy, sprinkling confetti of red pepper and bright green chive, scattering matchsticks of jicama – working from a palette of tastes adventurous eaters have fallen in love with: smoked chilis, the citric edge of tomatillo and lime, the blast of pepper heat cooled by pineapple, mango, and papaya, the odd soapiness of cilantro (which I hated up until the moment I became addicted). The heat is held in check (perhaps too much for jalapeñophiles) so as not to overwhelm a chorus of flavors. 

        Spectacular white-bean-and-roasted-tomato soup, garlic-laced, red-onion-sweet, has a slow-moving peppery afterkick. Lemony sea scallops shimmer on triangles of crisp fried tortilla beside avocado-corn relish. Roasted garlic lurks in a forest of frisée with chorizo and Asiago cheese. For my taste, blue cornmeal makes too rough a coat for salmon cakes, which might be moister, though I’m wild for the pineapple-tomatillo salsa. And the corn dust adds a nice crunch to the good house-baked rolls and, at lunchtime, heroes. Grilled tuna tops a crisp tostada with avocado vinaigrette and black-bean-and-mango salsa. Moist grilled quail nests beside a tangle of greens with roasted beets and barbecued red onion in poblano vinaigrette.

        Wimpy shrimp mar a shrimp-and-white-bean taco, and the noontime pasta is dull, but the intense perfumes of the shellfish posole are so intoxicating, the plump scallops so perfect, you won’t mind a boring sea critter or two. 

        Fries and chips tingle with ancho-chili dust. It all sounds wonderful – cilantro pesto, baked sweet potato in tamale or gratin – how to decide between adobo-reddened pork chops and loin lamb chops and grilled swordfish? At dinner, the steak is tender and zesty with good flavor. At lunch, calmer, quieter, the special marinated-pork-tenderloin sandwich with herb-flecked aioli is a winner, but a burger is toughened by overhandling. 

        The wine list is short and unabashedly patriotic, reasonable too: a fruity Texas Sauvignon Blanc, a good New Paltz Merlot, and bottles that may have made it for the poetry – Wild Horse, Pheasant Ridge. Pastry chef Wayne Brachman’s raspberry cup custard, with its crackle top and graham foundation, is fabulous. Save room for apple-pecan pan dowdy with melting biscuit chapeaus and puffed-up raisins so big you’ll think they’re plums.

        Looking for a great $50 dinner? This is it, three courses, wine, tax, and tip included. On a budget? Do what most Mesa Grill customers do – share an appetizer, split dessert, sip a beer. And get your broker to buy futures in chili and cilantro. 102 Fifth Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets.  212 807 7400.

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