Bobby Flay and I are about as close as any two guys can be who each thinks the other has no respect for what he does. In other words, he don’t send me no Christmas cards, and unlike with most famous chefs, my pulse quickens not a bit when he walks in a room.
This review of Mesa Grill on KNPR, from November 2004, probably squelched any chance for a bromance in the bud, and whatever tiny chances we’ve had to get acquainted in the past five years always seem to end up with us standing on opposite sides of the room.
Given that chill in the air whenever our orbits intersect, it was heartening to have him approach me at Vegas Uncork’d in May, extend his hand, look me in the eye and give me one of those semi-shoulder-pat-dude-hugs accompanied by the words: “We’re going to have to turn you around dude, ” with a semi-smile/grimace on his face that said: “The p.r. folks are making me do this.”
Regardless, he didn’t have to do it, I promised him I’d give Mesa another fair shot, and we actually joked a bit in the elevator going up to miX.
Because of that minute long encounter, ELV has now decided he likes Bobby Flay. (In matters of the heart, these things make little sense, but there you go.) Mutual friends have told us he can be a real mensch, and if guys wives are any indication (and often they aren’t), anyone who’s married to Stephanie March, can’t be all bad. We say that because we’ve met her (briefly) on two occasions and she was funny, charming and friendly. (Not just charming and friendly by beautiful Hollywood actress standards, but genuinely nice the way your favorite gal pal or Great Aunt Beatrice is.)
We’re sure Flay doesn’t give a tinker’s dam what ELV thinks of him (or his wife), but in spite of his celebrity (and because of chef-ly pride), it’s probably a fair bet that he cares what writers say about his food. That’s why we’ve been back to Mesa three times in the past two months (two lunches and a dinner), open-minded, ready to be impressed, and hoping for a chile-infused meal from heaven.
Three meals, and four hundred dollars later, we’re still waiting for hosannas to hit us.
Before we get to the food, though, let’s start with the basics.
Because Flay is a constant presence on the Food Network, this place is packed for lunch and dinner, almost every day of the week. As a result, there’s a certain metronomic, impersonal slant to the service. From the time you announce your presence until you’re presented the bill, the staff seems under the gun of having to move so many bodies through the place. They do it with skill, but if you want to feel good about basking in the absentee glow of Mr. Boy Meets Grill, the best time to go is lunch. Dinner is a zoo.
Lunch has certainly provided us with more than a few tasty bites. The burger here is one of the best you’ll ever have, ditto the “Cuban” burger on smashed foccacia, loaded with good cheese and plenty of pickles. Grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple-cascabel chile sauce demonstrates how well good fish marries with fruit and spicy accents, and the cornbread pudding (when they’re making it) is so good it should be illegal.
On the downside, our pork “Cuban” sandwich was dry and dull, the steak tartare chunky and spicy, but way too cold, and the Southwestern Cobb salad an unholy mess of big, thick bacon strips, unwieldy, uncut greens and way too little dressing. (Note: This parsimonious placement of dressings and sauces persistently peeves us, as you’ll soon perceive.)
So let’s address the dressing issue. At dinner, our two entrees sounded great on the menu. Hacked chicken with five-chile mole, and pan-seared halibut with red-chile curry sauce both came highly recommended by our waitron. Both main ingredients were carefully cooked, but, yet again, accented by mere dapples of the aforementioned spiced sauces. Three bites in and we were left with a bunch of naked chicken and a huge block of rare halibut with nothing a bunch of cotija, cactus and corn to give it any “bam.”
Flay’s reputation was built on spices and chiles, but all he does now is give you but a hint of what made him famous. But that wasn’t the worst of it. What little of those sauces we had did not have us begging for more. The five-chile mole tasted not of deep, soulful, roasted chilies, but rather of sugar, and the red chile-curry sauce tasted strongly of neither.
Speaking of sugar, the grilled octopus salad is now in our pantheon of the worst looking dishes we’ve ever eaten, both for its overall appearance (Does anyone but old Greek fishermen like eating long, sucker-filled tentacles?), but also for its saccharinity. It tasted like cephalopod candy, was tough to cut and chew, and after three knife and jaw-straining bites, we left the other two long tentacles untouched on the plate. No one bothered to notice or ask why we barely touched it.
All of this left us scratching our head. Does Flay ever taste these dishes? Do his Executive Chefs approve of barely dressed chicken with teeny, tiny amounts of sugary sweet sauces? Is there a less is more saucing philosophy going on in this kitchen? Does anyone care, or are they too busy counting their money to accurately execute the concepts that put Bobby on the map in the first place.
Maybe we need Bobby, or one of his chefs, to sit down with us and explain why they dole out all of those fabulous-sounding sauces with an eyedropper, and why the octopus tastes like a candy bar. Maybe we just don’t get it, or maybe the master needs to be in the house before these recipes are faithfully done. There’s nothing easy about five-chile moles, hot and sweet yellow pepper sauces, or blending habaneros with star anise. ELV wants to love food that sounds as delectable as this. Like we said, we like the guy, and we want to like his restaurant.
But at this rate, our bromance has a long way to go.
In Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109