Epicurean

Mez's middle range

CorrespondentApril 16, 2008 

Taquerias and Tex-Mex eateries have sprung up all over the Triangle in recent years like cactus flowers after a desert rain. At the other end of the Mexican-restaurant spectrum, Jibarra has built a solid reputation as a fine dining destination. It was only a matter of time before someone would stake a claim to the middle ground. And what better someone than Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, which has brought us such successful midmarket restaurants as 411 West, 518 West, Squid's and Spanky's?

Mez (5400 Page Road; 941-1630; www.mezdurham.com), which opened the end of last month near RTP in Durham, looks like a good bet to keep the group's winning streak alive. The restaurant bills its cuisine as contemporary Mexican, which translates to a varied offering with an emphasis on scratch preparation (including tortillas) and fresh ingredients that are, whenever possible, organic and locally grown.

The menu, a collaborative effort among chefs Aaron Stumb, Jeff Robinson and Mexico City native David Peraza, doesn't aim for strict authenticity. Instead, the team looks south of the Border for inspiration in dishes such as Mexican herb-crusted calamari with honey pasilla sauce, roasted corn and piquillo pepper crab cakes, shrimp and scallops in a tomatillo cream sauce, and filet mignon with mole negro. Prices are in the mid range, with all but two entrees (the filet and a rib-eye with chimichurri and Mexican succotash) going for $18 or less.

The food isn't the only way in which Mez breaks new grounds. The building, a spanking new two-story structure whose style might be described as hacienda modern, is the first restaurant in North Carolina (and one of only five in the United States) to meet the strict "green" environmental standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The ample space includes a patio, private rooms with seating for up to 100, and a well-stocked bar with an excellent tequila selection.

Mez is open for lunch weekdays and dinner every night but Sunday. A light "salsa bar" menu is offered from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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