When Fares Hanna opened Mesa Latin Kitchen last summer in the building where he’d closed the doors on Gregoria’s Cuban Steakhouse just two weeks before, the speed of the transformation seemed almost magical.
In the blink of a general contractor’s eye, Hanna had opened up the space and given it a more vibrant look – with new flooring and light fixtures, Spanish tiles and a colorful collage of dinner plates on walls painted in warm hues of mango and dulce de leche. Newly installed windows brought in more light, and color-changing neon lights illuminated a poured concrete bar.
On the wall across from the bar, a collection of vintage black-and-white photos of Havana is one of the few links to the restaurant’s previous incarnation. The pictures serve as a reminder that, while Mesa is a new concept centered on contemporary Latin-inspired small plates, it hasn’t completely severed ties with Gregoria’s traditional Cuban spirit.
Fans of that restaurant will be pleased to know that the popular ropa vieja survived the transition.
But the overwhelming majority of the offering is new – as in Nuevo Latino. Hanna was inspired to make the change while on a business trip to Miami, when he met Douglas Rodriguez, the nationally acclaimed chef whose pioneering work in Nuevo Latino cuisine earned him a James Beard Rising Star Chef Award in 1996.
Their shared passion led to friendship, which in turn led to Rodriguez helping with the creation of Mesa’s menu.
Smoked tuna taquitos – crisp mini tortilla shells made from malanga (a tuber similar to taro root) with a creamy filling that Hanna describes as “tuna salad on steroids” – are a prime example of the concept.
So are Cuban sandwich sticks, a modern twist on the classic Cubano sandwich featuring bamboo-skewered morsels of roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese wrapped in phyllo pastry and drizzled with a honey mustard glaze.
Pork belly and chorizo Cuban sliders, served on mounds of crispy potato straws, take the classic sandwich in an altogether different – and equally satisfying – direction.
A ceviche of shrimp, crab and octopus surprises with chunks of sweet potato and a marinade that skews a little sweeter than most traditional versions. Grilled asparagus with lemon “mojo” (think aioli) and tempura-battered slices of candied lemon is a refreshing change of pace, too, though the presentation was marred by a soft, too-thick tempura batter when I tried it.
But I couldn’t fault the coconut rice, rich with coconut milk, polka-dotted with peas and crab meat and served in a coconut shell.
Two variations on the empanada theme – Argentinean-style baked beef empanadas and deep-fried Colombian style, filled with spinach, sweet corn and manchego cheese – stick closer to the conventional path. I found the beef filling too restrained (it would have benefited from more of the promised onion, olive and tomato), but judging by the empanadas’ popularity, I’m in the minority.
Don’t let the somewhat confusing heading of a category labeled “Flat Bread Cassava” deter you from trying at least one of these shareable starters. “Cassava Flatbreads” would be a more accurate name for the thin ovals of chewy-crisp crust made from cassava root dough, with topping combinations including exotic mushrooms and smoked cauliflower puree, crab and charred corn, and the medley of serrano ham, dried figs and arugula that was a hit at our table one night.
The Large Plates list is short but varied, with winning options including chicken Imperial (an exemplary moist grilled breast served over yellow rice spangled with olives, peas and peppers) and a 24-hour slow-cooked brisket “steak” with red onion jam and brown butter chimichurri.
The dessert offering covers the bases from tres leches cake to chocolate chip budin, decadent with dark Godiva sauce, chopped figs and salted caramel ice cream. You won’t go wrong with either, but for my money, it’s the goat cheese guava flan, garnished with a kaleidoscope of berries and diced fresh pineapple, that’s the star of the pastry cart.
Committed as he is to the Nuevo Latino concept, Hanna is not above tweaking the menu in response to customer feedback. He recently replaced the trout entree, which hadn’t been selling well, with a more mainstream flounder presentation.
He’s supplementing the entree offering with nightly specials, and considering reviving the popular seafood paella – and maybe a steak or two – from Gregoria’s menu.
Many will recall that Gregoria’s Cuban Steakhouse was itself a reincarnation of Gregoria’s Kitchen, a popular Cuban restaurant that was closed by a fire in 2013. The steakhouse was successful at reproducing, and even expanding on, the original menu. But the new, larger location failed to capture the cozy charm of the original Gregoria’s, which was in a converted 1920s stone house on Chapel Hill Road.
Fares Hanna is betting that Mesa Latin Kitchen is better suited to the new location. You might say he’s no longer trying to bring back the magic of the original Gregoria’s, and instead has opened a restaurant that he believes will create a little magic of its own.
2701 Hillsborough Road, Durham; 919-973-2717
Cuisine: Nuevo Latino
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: vibrant, contemporary, Latin
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: eager to please, variably experienced
Recommended: tuna taquitos, Cuban sliders, flatbreads, coconut rice, guava flan
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.