The Dallas Version

I could have sworn I was in Dallas. Mesa's pared-down decor certainly said so, its sleek vanilla planes lit by Japanesey boxes and technoid Italian snakes. So did the young women at the next table, their teeny-tiny cardigan sets shrink-wrapped, their geometrically clipped heads bent over copies of Vogue and the J. Crew catalog. The waiters, done up in turquoise shirts and bolo ties, had that dressed-to-kill Dallas look.

Even the restaurant's portentous subtitle -- "A Taste of Santa Fe" -- smacked of Big D's Haute Foodie airs. And the menu was purest D-Speak: abristle with buzzwords ("fire-charred," "caramelized," "wood-grilled"); hell-bent on extracting maximum trendiness from each

ish ("Seared Chicken-Poblano Adobe Pie on Chipotle Cream Sauce with Pico de Gallo and Serrano Sour Cream").

Yet I was not in Dallas. I was in the River Oaks Center on West Gray, dining on food mannered to the point of preciousness and oddly devoid of soul. Month-old Mesa deserves credit for attempting New Southwestern cuisine at moderate prices -- a wide-open Houston niche. But at this tender stage of Mesa's life, a poor man's Cafe Annie it is not.

Ambitious it is. Dallasites Jim and Liz Baron (who run Blue Mesa Grill there, three On the Borders here, and an Austin El Torito) have imported a hotshot chef who has graced some of Dallas' prime kitchens (Baby Routh, the late Actuelle, the Mansion of Turtle Creek). A Culinary Institute of America grad, George Brown Jr. won positive notices as executive chef of the dignified Melrose Hotel. But it's hard to know what to make of his Houston debut. While good ideas lurk within his hyperactive menu, too often they are sabotaged by erratic execution, bouts of weirdness or failures of nerve.

Witness the (ahem) Dried Corn-Crusted Salmon on Poblano Butter Sauce with Chorizo Tamales and Mango "Cole Slaw" (quotation marks theirs). Pearly, beautifully seared fish wears a non-crust that registers only as unidentifiable grit, and rides a vapid sauce in which the poblano chiles barely register at all. A sweetish nest of jicama, red cabbage, mango and peppers makes for an interesting slaw. Bitterness and gristle make for unpleasant little tamales.

Strange that the very touches meant to confer a Santa Fe eclat (the corn coating, the chiles) fade out on the plate. But Mesa's rarefied version of Santa Fe has less to do with robust New Mexican flavors than with signs and symbols: the mock-adobe fireplace; the folk-arty murals of spiky blue cacti and coyotes; the blue-corn triangles among the chic tri-color chips. Even the house margarita is blue, I am sorry to report; its weighty square glass caused my companion no end of trouble. "It's like drinking from a candle holder," he grumbled, turning it this way and that, trying for purchase.

I know how he felt. Three visits on, I still can't get a handle on this place. There are things to like here -- thin, elegant caramelized onion quesadillas; tangy duck taquitos rolled into crisp, diminutive cylinders. The jalapeo relish that accompanies this appetizer assortment is sweet and strange and undeniably good. But what are those tepid, lifeless chicken nachos doing on the plate? And why make a big production of Serrano Guacamole "Made Tableside" (quotation marks theirs) when the results are so desperately bland? The kitchen-prepared version on Mesa's Sunday brunch buffet was far better, blessed with tartness and detectable serrano chiles.

Sometimes the execution problems work in reverse. At dinner, a Southwestern caesar salad composed tableside, in a vast bowl, crackled with flavor: peppery croutons, sneaky-hot roasted green chiles, gratings of edgy cotija cheese. But at brunch, the selfsame salad had a terminal case of apathy.

Then there are the near-misses, the dishes that leave me feeling half-hopeful, half-frustrated. Cilantro goat-cheese enchiladas wrapped in delicate blue-corn tortillas are a brave, lively-tasting try; too bad their intriguing sauce of griddled pinto beans and onions bears an unsettling resemblance to the dog's breakfast. (Alas, it looks even worse on the pink or blue neo-Fiestaware that is a virtual modern restaurant plague; no food has a fighting chance set against such colors.) Piling grilled jicama slaw on top makes for a messy, hyperkinetic plate of food; at the risk of sounding like a fogey, I'd like this dish better separated into its component parts. Enchiladas here; beans over there; slaw yonder.

Barbecued beef tenderloin with a mealy, tenderized texture reposed on its own bean sauce -- this one a bright, surprising amalgam of black beans and cilantro. The jalapeno-whipped potatoes alongside were similarly ambivalent: great flavor, excessively whipped texture. Pan-seared pork tenderloin never quite achieved liftoff: its pink-centered medallions were fine (although not for those leery of less-than-thoroughly-cooked pork), but they seemed oddly disconnected from their pecan-sage butter sauce, their triangles of tasteless garlic-corn pudding and their wonderfully tart, crisp apple compote. If it worked better, this dish would be a deal at $10.50.

My favorite plate of food at Mesa was the pork chile relleno crusted with sublimely gritty blue cornmeal. It packed minimal pork, maximal cheese, and plenty of insinuating poblano heat; those excellent quesadillas and a tiny masa igloo -- the signature "Adobe Pie" -- made it a combination plate gone uptown.

That Adobe Pie came off better at dinner than on the brunch buffet, where its filling of seared chicken and poblano made a weak impression, and its masa shell seemed positively stolid. So far the Sunday buffet is not the exciting spread Mesa obviously hopes for; I found several of the touted offerings conspicuously missing (game-bird hash, roasted meats, yam chips, the entire dessert table).

Instead of the promised "variety" of enchiladas, there were perfectly nice smoked-chicken ones in a mild-mannered chipotle-chile cream. Made-on-the-spot quesadillas emerged insufficiently grilled, with none of the dinnertime version's slender finesse. Fishy, dryish amberjack was clad in that uncosmetic pinto-bean sauce. Tubes of penne pasta with green or red sauce and assorted add-ons were pleasant, if underwhelming. Greasy, pan-fried potatoes and peppers appalled; a pan of faintly honeyed cornbread hash ("sweet corn cake") simply puzzled. My fondest memories are of the herby cornbread squares and the stout, cinnamon-spiked coffee; even at a modest $12, that's not enough to make me a Sunday regular.

While the dessert table failed to materialize, waiter-borne desserts did: lemon-lime tart with a breezy, puckery quality and an irrelevant mango-raspberry sauce; white-chocolate macadamia-nut brownies that, with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, seemed at once innocent and wicked.

Bottom line: while the restaurant is uneven and, at times, irritatingly affected, it's also very young and not without promise. The early service problems ("Oh! Do you need a waiter? I'll be your waiter!" ... "No, I don't know what that dish is doing on your bill!") seem to be smoothing out. And it's sensibly priced. Collectors of new restaurants will want to show up to see what Houston's Kirksey-Myers have wrought with the space that once housed John Juan's, the XIT, and the antediluvian El Patio. The current wide-open spaces, their minimalist look a hybrid of Star-Trekky cafeteria and futuristic dude ranch, are an amusing surprise. And the circular patio, rimmed with black tile and ornamental ironwork, is far more inviting than most of the city's outdoor venues.

As for me, I'm still waiting for a poor man's Cafe Annie.

Mesa: A Taste of Santa Fe, 1971 West Gray, 520-8900.


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