While in Vegas a few weeks ago with only one night free for dinner, I had a very difficult time deciding where to eat. I considered B&B Ristorante which is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s new place at the Venetian which has several dishes right from the Babbo menu. Then there was Craftsteak at the MGM Grand, or Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, or should I give Thomas Keller’s Bouchon another shot? What about Bartolotta’s Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn? Crap, there were at least 20 places that I wanted to try. I spent hours pouring over reviews and reading online menus. Then a familiar face made the decision easy. His name is Jerry Seinfeld and he was performing at Caesars Palace. Once I got tickets to his show, the choice was almost made for me. Right across the casino floor is Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill.
Bobby Flay is one of the defining celebrity chefs of the Food Network. If you were to erect a Mount Rushmore of Food Network stars Bobby Flay would be be on it. Flay has created a definite brand for himself with his restaurants, books, and TV shows (for more on chef branding I would highly recommend Michael Ruhlman’s excellent book, The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen ) . When you think of the Flay brand you think of bold, spicy, southwestern flavors and grilled meats, which is why I love Flay’s style of cooking. Sure he comes off as kind of an ass on TV, but the man knows how to work with bold and exciting ingredients. His dishes feature some of my favorite things to cook with: steaks, seafood, pork, hot peppers, avocados, cilantro, garlic, cumin, Mexican cheeses, and corn. I have been making Flay recipes from his cookbooks and from the Food Network site for years and I was excited to try Mesa Grill to see how professional chefs prepare Bobby’s Food.
We were seated near the pass (where food is plated and given to the servers) where I had not only a view of the kitchen, but of the gigantic TV in the Caesar’s sportsbook where the Brewer’s game was on. Does it get any better? Read on and you will see that it does. We ordered wine; I had a delicious Ross Zinfindel (If I recall correctly) and my wife had a lighter white wine, which I should have written down but didn’t. We decided on the shrimp and blue corn tamale appetizer as many people hold it in high regard. The waiter said it was one of the most popular items on the menu. As I watched the food being plated at the pass, I could see he wasn’t kidding. Every couple of minutes one of these tamales would emerge from the kitchen. I am guessing they have one guy just making these things all night long. The tamale was light and bursting with corn flavor with just a hint of garlic. There were even full corn kernels in the mix. The tiger shrimp were perfectly cooked and was covered in an excellent corn cilantro sauce. The flavors were delicate and Flay let the ingredients shine.
For my entree I was really itching for steak, which is something I usually don’t order out (with the exception of Hanger steak, which I wil typically order when I see it on a menu) because I grill a lot of it at home. Flay has a section of his menu dedicated to three steak preparations; a NY Strip Steak with Mesa Grill steak sauce (which is a customer favorite according to our server), the red and black pepper crusted filet with mushroom ancho sauce, and the chipotle glazed ribeye with red and green chile sauce. The choice was difficult as they all sounded great, but since ribeye is my favorite cut after the hanger, I decided on that. I ordered it medium rare and the server soon came back and said that since it was such a thick cut that I may want to consider medium. I trusted his advice was presented with a very large steak. I cut it open and the meat was perfectly pink throughout. As I took the first bite I could feel myself begin to grin. It was phenomenal. My next bite I dragged through the red sauce, which was somewhat spicy and filled with the flavor of ancho chiles. The green sauce was a little spicier and had the flavors of chile and cilantro. Both were excellent. The steak was also topped with a medley of peppers, which added even more spice to the chipotle glaze and the two chili sauces served underneath. What I liked was that you could adjust the spice level or flavor of each bite by adjusting the quantity of sauce and peppers you took with each bite.
For the most part entrees are ala carte, though some come with a side, like the New Mexican Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin my wife ordered. It was served with a sweet potato tamale with pecan butter. The tenderloin, crusted with dried chile powders, allspice, and cinnamon, was cooked so that the pork remained slightly pink, which is to say it was perfect. The bourbon-ancho chile sauce provided a nice amount of heat to the dish. It was another home run for Flay. Speaking of home runs, as I watched the Brewer game out of the corner of my eye Prince Fielder just blasted a 2-run game winner. As a side note, Flay offers up the recipe for this awesome dish at the Food Network Site.
Along side our meals we had a side dish of roasted corn with lime, chipotle, and Cotija (a crumbly Mexican cheese). While 8 bucks for a side of corn seemed excessive, I will say that it was the best corn I have ever tasted. Slightly spicy, with a tangy lime kick balanced with the mild cheese it was a perfect accompaniment to each of our entrees.
After all of that I was stuffed. So stuffed that I left some steak on my plate. I was ready to call it a meal and head over to see Seinfeld. Then they brought the dessert menu and decided to go another round. We opted for the Warm Chocolate Cake with dulce de leche and toasted pecan ice cream. Despite how full we were, we managed to eat every last bite of this excellent dessert. The warmth of the cake paired well with the ice cream. It was like a hot fudge sundae sensation, but it was much much better.
I went into Mesa Grill with a bit of skepticism. Maybe my meal at Keller’s Bouchon jaded me, or the fact that Tyler Florence is creating dishes for Applebee’s or that Wolfgang Puck is selling pre-made sandwiches at the airport has made me suspicious of the celebrity chef. Were they selling good food or were they just slapping their brand onto mediocre food to cater to a celebrity-chef obsessed nation? In Flay’s case the food speaks for itself. Everything was perfectly cooked and loaded with flavor. The service was impeccable; from the server to the sommelier everyone was attentive and friendly. While our meal was not cheap, you could still get out of here for under 100 bucks for two if you skipped the appetizers and wine, but I would suggest splurging here. I would rank my meal at Mesa up there in my top 10 and would have no qualms recommending Mesa Grill to anyone looking for a place to eat in Vegas.
While in Vegas I noticed you couldn’t lay down a bet without catching a glimpse of a celebrity chef owned restaurant somewhere in the Casino. As I walked through the various casinos it was celebrity chef overload. Michael Mina, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller, Charlie Palmer (I had the best steak of my life at Aureole at the Mandalay Bay) Kerry Simon, Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Guy Savory, Joel Robuchon, Bobby Flay, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, and several others have opened up Vegas outposts and I think it is spectacular. No longer do hard core food lovers have to visit various Cities to sample food created by the greatest chefs in the world, they can just fly to Vegas. Sure Vegas is over the top and in your face. There is nothing quaint, charming or subtle about the City. I also think it is unfair to compare it to such food meccas as New York, San Francisco, or Chicago because it’s a whole different animal and really is in a class of its own.