Restaurant News & Reviews

Another bold gastronomic journey

To paraphrase the "Star Trek" tag line, Chapel Hill Restaurant Group dares to boldly go where no restaurateur has gone before.

In the three decades since the opening of Spanky's, the group's first restaurant, CHRG has launched an upscale contemporary seafood restaurant (Squid's) in the heart of tradition-bound Calabash country; pioneered the Cal-Italian concept in the Triangle with a restaurant (411 West) on a then-derelict stretch of Franklin Street; and opened the restaurant (518 West) that sparked the revitalization of Glenwood South.

Mez, the partnership's latest venture, continues that tradition. Its location on the outskirts of RTP might be daunting to many, but the area shows promise of burgeoning growth in the coming years. And the menu's contemporary take on Mexican cuisine charts a course largely unexplored by other restaurants in the area.

Navigated by CHRG veteran executive chef Aaron Stumb, the gastronomic journey is for the most part enjoyable, at times even exhilarating.

An occasional appetizer special pairing delicately crisp, spice-crusted calamari and a salad of purslane and local tomatoes in a huitlacoche vinaigrette is sure to give your meal a thrilling liftoff, if it's available.

If it isn't, then queso flameado, Mez's take on a Mexican cheese dip featuring molten Chihuahua and goat cheeses, roasted poblanos and tomatillo salsa bubbling at the edges in a small cast iron skillet, will do nicely. Especially if it's accompanied by one of Mez's excellent margaritas.

Crab Tampico, Mez's corn- and piquillo-flecked take on crab cakes, is well-conceived but marred by fishy-tasting crabmeat. But another starter, listed as "Mez ceviche," is a feast for the eyes: plump shrimp in a citrus roasted pepper tomato emulsion, served over tortilla chips with avocado, mango, cilantro and scallions.

It's pretty tasty, too, but it isn't seviche. Think of it as "coctel de camaron meets nachos in a tropical rain forest."

If you prefer to stay in the orbit of traditional fare, the guacamole is first-rate. It's generous enough to share, too, unlike the salsa trio whose skimpy portion and $5.95 price tag invite unfavorable comparisons with the complimentary chips and salsa at most Mexican restaurants.

The flavors are comfortingly familiar in an entree offering of chicken enchiladas: shredded chicken rolled in house-made corn tortillas, topped with a rich, complex mole poblano.

More adventurous palates will find ample rewards in pescado Veracruzano, grilled seasonal fish (often mahi) in a red sauce spiked with capers and green olives. And the accompanying flautas, filled with shiitakes and goat cheese and topped with dollops of an earthy pipian verde sauce, could easily hold their own on the appetizer list.

But for my money, it's the beef brisket Vaquero that stands out. Succulent, smoky and tender atop a pillowy mound of whipped potatoes, blanketed by a mild, subtly sweet Vaquero sauce and flanked by pods of okra fried in a fragile crisp batter, this one is sure to beam you up to beefeater bliss.

Mez also offers a small plate selection for lighter appetites and tapas-style nibbling.

Pollo tamal, filled with pasilla-spiced chicken, steamed in a corn husk and served with a honey pasilla salsa, hits the spot. So do tacos de pescado, starring tilapia fried in a golden, achiote-infused beer batter.

And the roasted chile relleno, stuffed with roasted vegetables, rice, almonds, raisins and Chihuahua cheese and served over an almond cream sauce, is so addictive you might be tempted to order another.

Don't. You wouldn't want to spoil your appetite for dessert. A sinfully buttery upside down mango cake, say, or tres leches cake topped with soft meringue and candied almonds.

Mez's airy dining room and bar, overlooked by the balcony of a second floor banquet room, set the mood with a dramatic contemporary Spanish look -- and with the high ceilings (and corresponding noise level) that have become trademarks of a CHRG restaurant.

Service is unusually smooth for a restaurant that has been open for just four months, but that will come as no surprise to those familiar with the group's other restaurants.

And if the culinary ride is a little bumpy on occasion, it's a good bet that management will have Mez cruising along at warp speed before long.