Thursday, May 31, 2007

Booby Flay vs. RVA

Back in March, Iron Chef Bobby Flay showed up at UofR to stage one of his Throwdown episodes for the Food Network. Ironically, as Flay was picking on Buzz or Ned (or both), my wife and I were simultaneously having our first ever experience eating at Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay’s signature Manhattan restaurant. Seriously, this was a coincidental turning of the tables, but it’s only fair in a culinary “throwdown.” Come to our town to pick a fight and we’ll go to your town to… well, give you a lot of money and then talk about you (the Bobby vs Buzz episode runs tonight at 10pm, by the way).

This is Bobby Flay facing off against Rick Bayless, a less egotistical chef who has also made his career appropriating Latino cuisine.

As longtime fans of Bobby Flay’s take on southwestern fare, Karen and I had been hoping to taste the food we were seeing on Boy Meets Grill, Iron Chef America, and the cookbooks we own by the famously oh-so-smug TV chef. In fact, this was our first ever trip to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, and I was feeling a little nervous and guilty about the indulgence. In order to make the expense feasible, we decided on Sunday brunch, when the menu was within our price range.

First off, I want to point out that Bobby Flay has become something of a cartoon. He is undeniably arrogant in his on-screen persona. This is what makes his new show, “Throwdown” such a contrived turn. The lead-in shows him in a black t-shirt shadow-boxing the camera as the show builds up to Bobby challenging some poor unsuspecting chef. Bobby Flay as bully seems fitting. However, in most cases, the show focuses on Flay’s misadventures, kitchen foibles, and basically… he eats humble pie week in and week out. It’s a pretty ridiculous charade. First of all, Bobby is clearly not a fighter. He may be full of NYC 'tude, but he's a filthy rich dough boy at this point in his life. Notice that his tight t-shirts reveal pointy protrusions of flab where a tough guy's pecks should be. And secondly, there is no doubt that a cook with so many successful restaurants, TV shows, and cookbooks, could grill a steak better than a marine (episode #?), simmer a superlatively savory pot of chili (episode #?), and in tonight’s episode, execute a perfect batch of the the staple bbq food, spare ribs. But alas, tonight we will undoubtedly see Booby Flay floundering around the flames while he pays tribute to another local cook. How fortunate for our local heroes.

After enduring the first season of this tragically funny show, Karen and I felt compelled to check out Bobby Flay’s food in-person, on his own turf, at Mesa Grill in Manhattan. Surely, Flay would have the last laugh at his own restaurant. So, this brings us to our romp around the island of Manhattan, hiking through Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, and wherever bargains were to be found. It was Sunday, and we were almost late for brunch thanks to the daylight savings “spring forward” that took place while we slept.

Sweaty and tired of walking, looking like two back-packers coming off of the Appalachian Trail for a brief respite, Karen and I walked through the door of one of the most chic restaurants we’d ever dined in. Immediately, two rail thin Mesa Grill hosts looked down their noses at us, sure that we were in the wrong place, and surprised that we were “on the list.” While we waited, we peeled of a few layers and checked our bags. The colors in here were pure Sante Fe, sherbet pastels contrasted with dark earth tones. The bar was a thing of beauty, with the coolest looking hanging lights and wall sconces.

Eventually, we were taken upstairs to a level of seating that gave us a view through the railing of the entire restaurant’s busy dining room floor. The crowd was stylish, stuffy, and effervescent with chatter. This space couldn’t hold another table full of people. Clearly, Bobby Flay is still in vogue.

While we looked over the tempting menu, we ordered a carrot/mango juice to split between the two of us. It was delicious. For our starter, we went with the rough cut tuna nachos with mango hot sauce and avocado crema. This appetizer was amazing. The tuna chunks were big and raw and glazed in spiciness, and all around the dish were the best tasting homemade tortilla chips I’d ever eaten. Each white or blue corn triangle exploded with the flavor of fresh corn. I can only imagine the kitchen contortions required to pack that much punch into a thin piece of fried dough. All along the bottom of the dish were pools of orange and green sauces that stood in for salsa and cheese or sour cream. Those were fine too, but I was already won over.

Along side the nachos, came a basket of biscuits – all shapes and sizes. They were warm and tantalizing. Before long I was beginning to fear fullness, but it was tough to stop smothering those interesting breads with their accompanying savory red jelly.

For our brunch entrees, we were utterly torn. Everything sounded amazing: blue corn waffles with blackberry bourbon syrup, sweet potato hash with green chili hollandaise, and the list goes on. Karen wound up ordering two sides with her ranch style eggs tostada just to make sure that she had the chance to taste as many Flay creations as possible. Her eggs were massive. They were whipped to a degree that they stood four inches tall sitting atop a crispy flour tortilla and smothered with white cheddar cheese. Drizzled artfully was Flay’s requisite squeeze bottling of ancho chile tomato sauce, which tasted great, but was mostly included for color since there wasn’t much of it (Karen likes loads of sauce with each bite of any kind of food, by the way). That left the eggs, cheese and tortilla to carry to the flavor/texture responsibility. Interestingly, the eggs were popping with a garlicky and saltiness that rivaled their airy fluffiness. Alas, the whole thing got cold quickly with the cheese stiffening and the big tortilla chip was mostly a tasty decoration, rather than a vehicle for shoveling eggs. Overall, points for style and technique, but not something we would order again.

My choice was a little more adventurous: Cornmeal crusted chile relleno filled with goat cheese and acorn squash, over a bed of fig-cascabel chile sauce. This thing was really pretty, like a beautifully proportioned statue to the immortal chile relleno in the sky. It was round and stout and gave off warm orange colors from it’s crust. When I sank my fork into it, the delicate poblano chile gave way and spilled forth a river of rich goat cheese. The crust and chile contained savory heat and the cheese was typically pungent. Both of these flavors were offset by the sweet and spicy fig sauce (cascabel?). But that was pretty much it. There was nothing else happening on my plate and I was quickly reminded that I’m not really crazy about goat cheese (my fault, I know). So, again, I can’t recommend this unless you want it on your mantel as a homage to southwestern frou-frou food.
Along side our dishes were two sides. Aren’t you curious how Bobby Flay’s hash browns taste? Well, the “Southwestern home fries” were soggy and cold. Their spicy rub wasn’t eventful enough to inspire us to eat more than a couple bites of them. Next to that was a plate of mango glazed bacon. Karen loves bacon once in a while and this sounded awesome. On a little rectangular plate were four strips of darkly colored meat and a puddle of light orange liquid on top of them. Does this sound right to you? Bacon is supposed to be crispy. These were limp, flaccid, and wet. They were peppery and the sauce was sweet, but altogether, barely edible.

Below, you will find the “grades” that I felt compelled to scribble on a little pad in the heat of the moment at Mesa Grill. In retrospect, I think I marked the food up a notch because I was grateful for the experience to be sitting in a celebrity chef’s dining room. To this day, I keep thinking that I would have been happier if I had just ordered the Blue Corn Chiliquiles that looked so good on half of the plates that I observed below. However, there is a possibility that Mesa Grill has simply plateaued, that Bobby has morphed into Booby for the camera, leaving behind his days as a successful restaurateur.

Mesa Grill Brunch
Carrot Mango juice: A
Tuna nachos: A
Biscuits: A
Ranch style eggs: B+
Home fries: C-
Mango-glazed bacon: C
Chile relleno: B+
Overall: B+

Tonight, we’ll get to watch a local boy hand Bobby his hind-quarters on a plate before some clearly biased judges and we’ll all cheer for our city besting one of the best. But, for me, the verdict is already in. Bobby Flay is a talented chef whose dishes make my mouth water at the suggestion of roasted poblano and smokes tomatillos. I don’t need to see him serve up a pretentious version of spare ribs at UofR to reassure me of this. I just need to know how to whip my eggs to that height and how to make chips with such zest. Booby Flay, get back in the kitchen.

ps: While on this trip to NYC, Karen and I also stopped at the Doughnut Plant, a shop that got throwd-down-with in a previous episode. The purveyor of those doughnuts was the now somewhat infamous Mark Israel. When Flay showed up and made his challenge, Israel lost his cool and nearly refused to compete (instead he opted to put his boxed doughnuts up against Flays, rather than cooking on the spot). Israel won the competition with his legendary Tres Leches Cake doughnut. As big fans of Tres Leches Cake (another brilliant Latino innovation), Karen and I had to try this doughnut. In a word, heavenly. Imagine the three sweet milks of the tres leches sealed into a cake by the hot grease of a deep fryer. To borrow from Emeril: Oh, yeah babe. Also killer were the myer lemon and the chocolate blackout.

While chatting up the Doughnut Plant cashier, I mentioned that we were glad that his shop beat Bobby Flay. And just as I spoke the words, Mark Israel walks right behind me and hearing my words, he reacted with a physical gesture that clearly conveyed disgust. Why the near tantrum? Well, cooks are just plain temperamental. Of course, I'd deal with the guy for a whole week to have some more of those doughnuts. By the way, the shop only sells decaf coffee. How weird is that?