November 8, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Tweaking the Tamales at Mesa Grill (CLOSED)

The fabulous quesadilla is a starter to share or could be dinner. Photo: Steven Richter.
The fabulous quesadilla is a starter to share or could be dinner. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Pardon my twittchiness but I can’t help it. I’m addicted to Twitter. I’ve pretty much given up my desperate need to match Martha Stewart’s 2,037,000 followers. It’s amazing I’ve actually got 43,000 of my own. As one of Bobby Flay’s earliest fans (149,692 followers) I follow his tweets. I fell in love with his spicy Southwestern cooking just weeks after he opened Mesa Grill in 1991. As a tweetster, Flay is not a master of haiku, daringly intimate or particularly witty. Mostly he sends out alerts for his television appearances or announces the flavor of the week at Bobby’s Burger Palace.

The crowd at the bar is building as tables turn about 10. Photo: Steven Richter.

        But a few weeks ago he tweeted from the kitchen at Mesa Grill, where he was working on the new menu. Considering how much time this matinée idol spends on TV and on the road, I was impressed that he still found time to tweak the tamales.

         I hadn’t been to Mesa in years, not since a lackluster Southwestern Thanksgiving dinner. Now I’m back. It’s Saturday night, a full house, and by 10 p.m. 40 or 50 standees cluster near the bar waiting for a table. A good looking young crowd, but then these days everyone this side of Betty White looks young to me. No sign of Bobby. I certainly don’t expect to see him on site, glad-handing, signing one of his 68 cookbooks for sale on a bookshelf beside the podium, flipping quesadillas in the glassed-in kitchen or guarding the pass. And I wasn’t expecting the food to be quite this wonderful. Good, yes, or good enough. But not this exciting. It tastes like early Bobby Flay, though occasionally a bit too sweet.

Here’s a steak worth of a steakhouse, needing some fries. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Honey over-tames the hot mustard and ancho chili with crunchy deep-fried quail though I concede that honey with fried chicken is a Southern tradition. And the pumpkin soup needs something for pizzazz, though not its maple crema. But the spice-rubbed New York strip is seriously steakhouse-good, a thoroughly macho slab of beef, smartly caramelized, juicy and rare. You don’t have to drag it through the housemade Mesa steak sauce unless you want to. And I’m wild about the cremini mushroom quesadilla, crunchy tortillas filled with ricotta and fontina, topped with a fried egg, in a wreath of salsa verde.

         I booked far ahead under another name but there is a little frisson of recognition as we are led to a table. So the service is über professional in a casual, friendly way. At one point a floorwalker rushes over anxiously: “I hear you want to order another side.” Is the table wired?

Have a biscuit with these nicely cooked shrimp on a tamal. Photo: Steven Richter.

        We’re with loving friends who’ve been good sports on many dining strikeouts but tonight we are all congratulating ourselves and Bobby for the joy of rediscovering this spot -- fiercely noisy as it is. As in the past, the spicy two-color corn muffins are delicious, though maddeningly, a touch reduces a broken-off piece to crumbs --- and we’re eating the crumbs. Shrimp with roasted garlic on a corn tamale comes with the last of the late summer corn, though I’m not sure why there is fresh asparagus on this fall menu.

Bison is delicious too and the virtuous choice. Photo: Steven Richter.

        One of our friends orders the Saturday Night Special: spice-rubbed bison filet with corn, ancho chile sauce and crispy red onion. It suffers ever so slightly by comparison to that exceptional steak. Let’s be realistic, bison is lean and healthier, a choice that's seasoned with virtue. Stringy threads of lamb shank posole with red wine chile broth, cabbage, hominy and cotija cheese is unworthy of the Flay brand. A side of undercooked Brussels sprouts with pomegranate seeds and toasted pecans is either a misguided philosophy or sheer carelessness. But the 16-spice chicken is a knockout with its sophisticated crust, juicy and sassy, although I prefer it without the pomegranate mole.

Apple and cranberry pot pie salutes the season in a lush buttery crust. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Like Flay himself, a rough-cut, restless, red-headed high school dropout, who worked at a pizza parlor and Baskin-Robbins before his flair at Joe Allen’s salad station inspired the boss to finance French Culinary Institute tuition, Mesa Grill has grown into its bones. In my first review, “The Corn is Blue" I called architect James Biber’s design with pierced aluminum fixtures throwing dapples of light on walls painted in the colors of Southwestern vittles -- avocado, saffron, mustard, papaya -- waggish, playful, even a bit silly. Tonight I find myself coveting the colorful Corinthian columns and missing the red laminated cowboys heating up the banquettes.

         The three course $50 dinner with tax and tip is long gone – appetizers now run from $10, for my favorite chopped salad, to $16; entrees are $22 to $39, but tempting sides like pumpkin tamale and double-baked potato with horseradish, green onions and crème fraîche are a gentle $7. Wines by the glass are reasonable enough too. From pastry chef Clarisa Martino’s $10.50 desserts, we share the apple and cranberry pot pie with caramel ice cream -- seasonal, elegant, sweet and tangy.

         At the bottom of the menu it reads: “Chef Bobby Flay.” Clearly that’s not idle puffery. It tastes true to me.

        102 Fifth Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets, 212 807 7400. Monday through Friday lunch noon to 2:30 pm. Sunday through Thursday dinner 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm. Friday till 11 pm. Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Sunday till 3 pm.


Trailing Salvatore: Tre Otto

Does Robert De Niro look like roaming Sicilian Chef Salvatore? Photo: Steven Richter.

        Upper East Siders never stop complaining about the cuisinary deprivation of their zip code. So I’m not surprised to see the crowd packed into the runty up front and skinny alley leading to the buttoned-down garden at Tre Otto on Madison just north of 96th Street. The view from the street beckons. Artisanal pastas and oils from Italy are packed onto shelves in the mercato behind the bar. An uptown cowboy in a big brimmed black hat stands out in the cluster of bar diners. A trio of women has settled at a counter in the window.

Tre Otto’s view from the sidewalk is warm and welcoming. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The chef himself, in a squat dark toque and striped pants, pops out of the kitchen and spies us blocking the aisle waiting for a table. There are hugs and kisses. My guy and I have been trailing Salvatore Fraterrigo since we first tasted his food at Il Radicchio in Sicily. He’s been here and gone home, popping up downtown, then to San Francisco, and now back to New York. “San Francisco was too cold for me,” he confides.

         “You look just like Robert De Niro,” Steven tells Salvatore, as he photographs him in the kitchen.

         Fraterrigo tosses his head. “Robert De Niro looks just like me.”

Pugliese pizza is topped with broccoli rabe and not so “spicy” sausage. Photo: Steven Richter.

         As the last of what looks like a neighborhood foursome gets up from the table, she eyes us: “You’re gonna love this place,” she says. “The food is wonderful. Whatever you do, don’t miss the pasta with almonds, pesto Sicilian style.”
        We can’t blame Salvatore for the pizza. He’s got a designated pie guy out back. “I don’t know anything about pizza,” he admits. Our foursome is eating a good enough 12 inch Pugliese with mozzarella, tomato, broccoli rabe and “hot Italian sausage,” which isn’t the least bit spicy. Our friends across the table ask for hot pepper flakes. That helps.

Tonight’s special minestrone is welcome on a frosty fall night. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Steven and I love the minestrone, although our friend who ordered it is not impressed, and no one but me is happy with the big round deep fried saffron rice ball stuffed with beef ragout and peas in a puddle of tomato sauce. I am alone too in liking the evening special the chef himself delivers as a gift: A squid ink-blackened rice ball stuffed with bits of shrimp.

The chef’s squid ink rice ball with bits of shrimp. Photo by: Steven Richter.

        There is nothing subtle about Tre Otto’s very sauce-y pastas, though Steven seems happy with the spaghetti alla chitarra with lamb ragout and goat cheese. The handmade trenette with Trapanese pesto so effusively recommended is muddy and bland, the noodles regrettably soft. The lasagna is an exuberant mess. The huge serving of linguine con vongole in its terra cotta bowl is firm and al dente but the few clams and slivers of garlic add little or no zest. That we had to approve the garlic suggests the house catering to real or imagined local fetishes. Hot pepper flakes flying to the rescue are inadequate. Salt, pepper, lemon, clam juice - something is needed.

First-rate noodles in linguine con vongole need a dose of flavor. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Our companions are indignant. The creamy tiramisu brings them only brief comfort. Sheep’s milk ricotta-stuffed baby cannoli, Salvatore’s pride, is more my style. And when the bill arrives, it’s clear why many in the neighborhood have embraced this small family-run place that offers breakfast, lunch, dinner and delivery. A duo sharing a large pizza with two glasses of wine can eat for $50, all included. Pastas start at $12, small casseroles are $9 to $16, and entrees go from $19 to $28 for a whole fish of the day.

        It’s not worth a detour but if you live nearby you might want to schmooze with Salvatore and check it out.

        1408 Madison Avenue between 97th and 98th Streets. 212 860 8880 Monday through Friday breakfast 7 am to noon. Lunch noon to four. Sunday through Thursday Dinner 4 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11 pm.

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