Another bold gastronomic journey

News and Observer
Published: Aug 08, 2008 12:00 AM
Modified: Aug 08, 2008 01:39 AM
By Greg Cox, Correspondent

Cilantro-Pesto Chicken is a roasted chicken breast stuffed with cilantro pesto served with boniato whipped potatoes and vegetables at Mez, where traditional and adventurous fare share the menu.

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.

©Copyright 2008, The News & Observer Publishing Company
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The Chapel Hill Restaurant Group Does it Again

From Metro Magazine July 2008
By Moreton Neal

There's just no arguing with the old cliché: "The first taste is with the eye." In the case of MEZ, my first taste occurred before darkening the door of the handsome new building sandwiched between massive steel and glass structures on Page Road. It happened in the parking lot where spaces near the front were conspicuously labeled "HYBRID." I pulled in my new Prius a little sanctimoniously, already enjoying my dining experience.

MEZ is a fascinating hybrid in itself. One of the first "green" restaurants in the country, and one of the first urban Mexican restaurants in the Southeast, its food has the earthy taste of Veracruz, but its sleek façade is completely at home in corporate RTP. It is owned and operated by the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group (Mickey Ewell, Greg Overbeck, Pete Dorrance and Kenny Carlson), a synergistic partnership that has always been ahead of the curve. The group's fifth and most ambitious venture, MEZ proves the group hasn't lost its touch since launching 518 West in Raleigh over a decade ago.

Chapel Hillian Ewell started the company after he opened Spanky's on Franklin Street. With no experience in the food business back in the 1970s, Ewell was an astute businessman who recognized a need - for a good hamburger - and filled it, serving outstanding burgers now for over 30 years. Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson bused tables and washed dishes at Spanky's, eventually working up to team managers of the eatery.

Partners by 1986, the four men identified another unfilled niche in town: a seafood restaurant. Overbeck says, "Squid's was conceived as a combination of Southern fish camp, oyster bar and Northeastern lobster shack." Its menu offered seafood classics from Calabash to Kennebunkport. Locals were hooked from day one, and it continues to fill up nightly on Fordham Boulevard.

Their next project was modeled after a Georgetown pizzeria and featured the first wood burning pizza oven in this area. 411 West Italian Café opened on West Franklin in 1990 featuring pizzas, but Italian and other Mediterranean specialties dot the menu. "That region is just a starting point for our chef," says Overbeck, who describes the menu as eclectic, even though it has consistently been voted "Best Italian Restaurant in the Triangle" in readers' polls over the years.

518 West followed in 1996, repeating both the format and the success of 411. The eatery was one of the first in a neighborhood considered risky - Glenwood South, years before the area became the popular restaurant row it is today.

Now, more than a decade later, MEZ forges a new trail. Described by Overbeck as "upscale casual," MEZ is a lunch draw for Research Triangle businesses, and a convenient meeting place between Raleigh and Durham/Chapel Hill. New hotels under construction should add legions to its following. Its story is typical of the group's modus operandi - identify a void and fill it, with distinctive panache.

This time the unfilled niche was "contemporary Mexican" - exemplified by New York's Rosa Mexicana and Chicago's Frontera Grill and Adobo Grill, restaurants specializing in South-of-the-Border flavors using fresh local produce. The partners sent Chef Aaron Stumb, a Wake Tech graduate and Crook's Corner alum, up to Adobo for training. They sought a native Mexican chef, David Peraza, to help create a menu, and voila - a sleek, urban-style Mexican restaurant smack in the middle of the Triangle. Its green-ness extends to the dining area where it is joined by orange and yellow and blue. Cheerful tropical colors bathe the walls of the vast bar/dining room. You almost forget the building is surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

The food is as colorful as the décor. Shredded chicken tacos in an avocado-tomatillo salsa, mahi Veracruzano (olives, capers and peppers), chipotle-infused tilapia tacos, crab cakes with a hint of mint and cilantro served with a crunchy mango-jicama slaw - all are well-prepared and bursting with bright, clean flavors. Soups were lovely, especially the unusually savory melon with champagne and buttermilk, and the simple fresh corn chowder.

Portions are large, but save room for the sweets. Our mango upside-down cake and chocolate soufflé cake were delicious, and the tres leche cake, exceptional. Served with a custard sauce drizzled with caramel and topped with toasted, cinnamon-dusted almonds, I'm still drooling over it days later.

At cocktail hour, MEZ serves $2 tacos at the bar (the excellent fish taco will set you back $3) along with its delicious Margaritas, mojitos, sangritas and sangrias. Here I was initiated into the joys of caipirinha, the classic Brazilian concoction made from gandaia cachaca, lime and sugar, which instantly became my new favorite summer cocktail.

Like its sibling eateries in the Chapel Hill Group, MEZ offers Triangle food lovers style, consistency and good value. Ewell, Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson have a strong track record discerning the culinary zeitgeist here, then responding by creating the right place at the right time. Another cliché comes to mind, "If you build it, they will come."

With MEZ, the group has hit the ball out of the park. My crystal ball tells me that this American-Mexican hybrid, like the Prius, is destined to be a raging success.