For this restaurant review, it only seemed natural to go back to the place where it all started for me, The Mesa Grill by Bobby Flay at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The first time I went there was about a year and a half ago. I was in Las Vegas for work, attending a small conference. Not really wanting to venture out of the hotel as I had just wrapped up a day at the show and still had a bit of work to do that evening, I decided to just head down to one of the casino restaurants. The Mesa Grill was close to my elevators, and looked interesting, so I headed in. I recognized the chef from a Food Network show that I had seen as a barbeque guy, but really didn’t know anything beyond that.
When I walked in, I headed to the bar. I figured I was dining by myself, no need to get a table. I ordered myself a beer, and asked for a dinner menu. While looking over the menu, trying to find an entree that would allow me to stay close to my dinner per diem, I reached out and grabbed one of the bread sticks sitting up there. As I took that first bite, the flavor just exploded in my mouth. This was no ordinary breadstick. Firm on the outside, but soft on the inside, with a hint of spice, and a dash of cornmeal. I quickly polished that off and reached for another.
Now, with my taste buds alive, I quickly made a decision on the menu; the New Mexican Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Bourbon-Ancho Sauce. When I asked how I’d like it prepared, I hesitated. No one had asked me that on pork before. The bartender, noticing my slight bit of confusion, said that the chef recommends medium. So, I went with it.
About 15 minutes (and probably a half dozen breadsticks) later, I saw the plate making its way toward me. At this point, I was almost giddy with anticipation. The first thing I noticed was the aroma, a spice with a hint of sweet. I cut into the first piece of tenderloin and took a bite. Instantly, I knew this was like nothing I had tasted before. The pork was so juicy, the spice blends just right, and the sauce just pulled it all together. I quickly devoured the first piece of tenderloin before noticing that there was a tamale on my plate. Thinking back, I think it was one of the sage butter tamales. It tasted like a perfect piece of cornbread, but had this just creamy, melt in your mouth texture that was unlike any tamale I had ever eaten before.
When I finished every last bite on my plate, cleaned up the sauce, and had one last breadstick, I felt like I was in food heaven. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like this is the first time I’d ever been to a nice restaurant and had delicious food. But for some reason, it was this experience that really seemed to bring everything together for me. Food and flavor took on a new meaning. I knew that when I walked out of there, I wanted to start trying new things, creating sauces to accompany my food, exploring different cooking techniques. Why it was Mesa Grill, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe because the flavors were uniquely different and appealed to me. Maybe because it took things that seemed so basic, and transformed them to something so much more.
The memory was so great that I had to revisit during my trip to Las Vegas last week. This time, I dragged my friends with me. I was a little worried because I had set such a high expectation in my mind, and in theirs as well. Could Mesa Grill deliver the goods again? In a word, Absolutely! I recommend the pork to Nick, and ordered the Lamb Porterhouse for myself. This time when I asked how I wanted it prepared, I remembered to ask, “How does the chef recommend?” Again, I was blown away. I’ve never had lamb cooked so perfectly, and flavored so wonderfully, with that perfect blend of spice with just a little sweet. I don’t know any other way to describe it. But, the biggest telling point was when my friend Cliff took his first bite. Before he had even finished chewing he said it was probably the best lamb chop he had ever eaten. High praise for someone that has spent his entire life on a sheep ranch in Wyoming.
I know that this post has gone on for awhile, but, I think that the back story is important, and the Mesa Grill deserves it. It opened my eyes, and my palette, to food in a different way, both in my own cooking, and when I go out to restaurants. If you ever find yourself in Las Vegas, there are many fantastic places to eat (and I know that there will be more chronicled in this blog), but the Mesa Grill is one place that is absolutely worth visiting. The food is superb, and is very reasonably priced ($25-$40/entree). My only regret from that first trip is that I didn’t eat there every single night.