Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review Week: Celeberity Chef Goodness or Why You Should Never Say Never

Keeping with the theme of surprising finds and not judging books by covers, the final installment of Review Week brings us a triple review, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors from the Southwestern Kitchen and reviews of Mesa Grill in both New York and Las Vegas.

The first time I saw Bobby Flay on Food Network I have to admit I didn't like him. I didn't like what he cooked and I didn't like his brash and arrogant TV persona. In fact, I went so far as to tell a friend that if Bobby Flay was the last chef on earth I would never eat at one his restaurants or buy any of his cookbooks. Well, I am going to have to eat my words and thank goodness I get to!

This past spring, while in Las Vegas for one of the many audio industry trade shows that are held in Sin City, some high profile clients wanted to spend the evening discussing upcoming projects with their firm. More importantly, they wanted to be taken out to dinner on my expense account and the restaurant they chose was Mesa Grill in Ceasar's Palace. I inwardly groaned as I picked up the phone and made a reservation. That evening, we arrived, we were informed that they were running a bit behind and it would be a 20 minute wait but we would be welcome to wait at the bar.

Here is where you find out immediately what type of mettle a restaurant is made out of in the way they handle their customers when a table that is reserved isn't ready at the time of the reservation. Good restaurants under good management will sit you at the bar and serve you either drinks or an appetizer on the house because good restaurants won't give diners seated at a table the "bums rush" but they also don't want the party who has a reservation to be slighted. This is exactly what happened at Mesa Grill in Las Vegas. We were given a round of free drinks and the chef (no, not Bobby Flay) personally delivered to our table a plate of Yellow Cornmeal Crusted Oysters with his apologies for our wait. He had nothing to apologize for because those oysters were fantastic. Fresh and crunchy and the sauces served with them were perfectly spicy without being overso.

We enjoyed the oysters so much that we had another plate of them when we were seated along with the Blue Corn and Barbecued Duck Pancakes and Rough Cut Raw Tuna Nachos. For dinner I had Ancho Chile Honey Glazed Salmon and a side of Sauteed Spinach. My salmon was a bit overdone but the ancho chile glaze was very good and the spinach was perfectly seasoned. Everyone said their meal was great and I even had a taste of the special steak that night and it was perfectly grilled and seasoned. The service was good and prompt without being over bearing and rushed, a rarity in Las Vegas. The restaurant was packed so it wasn't because the restaurant was slow that the service was so good, it was because this is the way the restaurant is run. For dessert I had the Warm Chocolate Cake served with Dulce De Leche and Toasted Pecan Ice Cream. It was excellent and with the port I had for a final night cap, the perfect topper to a wonderfully tasty and surprising meal. I definitely recommend Mesa Grill in Las Vegas and can't wait until the next time I'm in Vegas for a trade show, because as a consultant, I'm not the one who gets taken out for dinner and I know exactly where I'm going to ask to go for dinner!

I've since had a chance to have both lunch and dinner at the original Mesa Grill in New York City. None of the meals I've had there have disappointed but none of them have shined the way the dinner in Las Vegas did either. I have never had an awful meal here but the service is a bit erratic and rush, rushed. Sometimes the service is down right awful and confusing, especially between the 7 and 10pm hours on Thursday thru Saturday. A few of the people I've been with for meals have had less than stellar meals with over cooked steaks and undercooked pork been had all four times I've been there for dinner by someone at the table. One night I have a dry and gritty shrimp tamale, the specialty of the house. So, I would have to say that the Mesa Grill in NYC needs a little attention at dinner from its founder, Bobby Flay. It's lunch service is a bit better and the Blue Corn Barbacued Duck Pancakes are one of my favourite quick lunches in New York.

Given my one hundred-eighty degree change of heart for Bobby Flay and his cooking, it was with great interest that I agreed to review his latest cookbook, "The Mesa Grill Cookbook".

When the book arrived the first thing I did was look to see if my beloved duck pancakes were in the book. They are along with all the other classic Mesa Grill dishes, the Wild Mushroom Quesadillas and the Shrimp and Roasted Garlic Corn Tamales, one of my favourite dishes at the New York restaurant. The book is divided into well organized sections like drinks (the Mesa Grill is famous for its margaritas), soups, salads, sides, etc. The book starts out with a really good introduction to the Southwestern Pantry and a great guide to chilies, the main ingredient in most of the recipes. This is really helpful for someone like me who doesn't cook a lot of this type of cuisine and wouldn't even know where to begin when it comes to sourcing the ingredients. The chile guide is especially helpful if you aren't a huge fan of super spicy food. You can look at a recipe and then refer back to this guide and decide if the seasoning of the recipe will be too much for your palate. Luckily, the hallmark of Southwestern food and Bobby Flay's take on it is more to the smoked and roasted chile resulting in even the hottest peppers being tamped down a bit. I also liked the extensive section on relishes, sauces, and vinaigrettes.

There are some really interesting relishes like Grilled Pineapple and Pickled Green Chile Salsa. I love grilled pineapple and anything pickled. This was a super tasty compliment to fish and chicken and while it was a bit time consuming to make, once it is made it keeps for a really long time in your fridge. I also made the Avocado Relish to serve with some friends that came over and watched football a few weekends ago. We all agreed it was a nice take on guacamole with better seasoning.

I found the recipes to be easy to follow with most of the ingredients pretty easy to find in even my grocery store, albeit in the Spanish/Mexican food section (The Goya brand will have most everything you need to make most of the dishes and there is a small list of suppliers at the back of the book). The one ingredient that defied my best efforts to find was the one ingredient that I most wanted to find, blue cornmeal. Since the Barbacue Duck Pancakes are my favourite dish at Mesa Grill, I wanted to make these. Alas, I never found a source for the blue cornmeal locally. I have some on order and as soon as it comes in, I'm making these as well as the Blue and Yellow Cornmeal Muffins.

Bobby Flay is known for how he handles meat, especially on the grill. Unfortunately it is winter here so I didn't venture out and fire up the grill but I did make two of the meat dishes from the cookbook, Tamarind Cracked Black Pepper Chicken and Coffee Rubbed Filet Mignon. I made the Tamarind Cracked Black Pepper Glazed Chicken for dinner one night and wasn't that thrilled with it. I like lots of tamarind and I could barely taste it in the glaze. The orange juice in the recipe overpowered the tamarind. The Coffee Rubbed Filet Mignon was the big surprise dish for me. When I made the rub, I thought the coffee flavor (in the form of finely ground espresso beans) was WAY overpowering. In fact, I thought it tasted bitter. But, when I seared the steak and then let it cook over a low and slow burner, the steak took on a smoky and densely layered taste. I really like it. A lot! I now have a small container of this rub in my pantry to toss on a steak without having to make the rub from scratch. I think I'm going to try it on a prime rib when my folks come out to see me at Easter.

One side dish I fell in love with because it was so easy to make and I'm a girl who likes her beans and rice is the Spicy Yellow Rice with Red Beans. This dish is quick and super tasty. I have made it a few times as a main dish with pan seared shrimp, poached white fish, and on its own topped with a handful of shredded four cheese blend. I also served it as the side dish with the above mentioned Coffee Rubbed Filet Mignon.

The kicker to the Spicy Yellow Rice with Red Beans? A pinch of saffron and the ancho chile powder, a sweet spicy winning combination just like Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors from the Southwestern Kitchen.

Coffee Rub for Steaks
From Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook

1 Tbsp ancho chile powder
1 Tbsp finely ground espresso
2 tsp Spanish paprika
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 tsp dry mustard
3/4 tsp ground coriander
3/4 tsp dried oregano
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp chile de arbol powder

Combine all the ingredients together and store in an airtight container.

To use: pat dry steak and rub 1 heaping tablespoon on each side of the steak. Let sit for five to 10 minutes. Heat 2 Tbsp of oil in a pan over hight heat until smoking (canola oil works really well) and pan sear each side of the steak for 2 minutes or until a crust has form. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking the steaks to desired doneness. Let meat rest 5 minutes before serving ( I like Medium Rare - about 5 -7 minutes).