At Mesero Miguel, Great Plates Lost in the Crowd
Not long after walking into Mesero Miguel, you may start to wonder whether the restaurants that failed in this two-story space could have made it if they simply looked this good. Cuba Libre put in a solid 10-year run on the highly visible corner of Willis and Henderson avenues, but in 2011 the owners thought it was time for a renovation. Their new restaurant, Alma, dressed in drab wood tones, opened and closed in the same year. Lemon Bar, which changed little before it moved into the building from the nearby West Village, lasted about as long.
That's when Mico Rodriguez, who helped found but flamed out of the group that started Mi Cocina, announced that he'd have a go at the space, as a follow-up to his two-year-old Mr. Mesero. He dressed the building top to bottom in an urban coastal style he called 1960s Palm Springs, and if weekend nights are an indicator, he's injected enough life into the space to break the building's slump.
The sleek, small waiting area, with its white walls and fixtures, could double as an entrance to a modern art gallery if it weren't packed with hungry customers waiting on a table. At the bar they linger two deep, hoping a margarita will take the edge off their wait. Upstairs, at a second bar that's backed in a dense forest of rough hewn lumber, it's more of the same — most of them standing, four-inch heels propping up every other pair of feet.
Maybe the dining room uses its own aesthetic sensibility to channel good-looking people. The old bar that once ran along the back of the main room has been turned into an open kitchen, and the space has been painted from a palette of creams and whites. In the early evening, the tables topped in an angular juxtaposition of dark gray and white echo the sunlight and shadows that cut through the dining room. And when the weather is agreeable an entire wall of sliding windows disappears. You can't tell where the patio ends and the dining room begins when the glass is pulled back, but you'll be happy to be sitting wherever you are.
It's a polished space to show off some seriously refined nachos, which arrive with more fanfare than any cheese-covered chips in history. Nacho service for two requires no less than four plates, a pair of tongs and so much careful placement you will think an artist's assistant is putting the finishing touches on an edible installation — a chip here, a little cabbage there, all of it just so. But the nachos deliver in layers of beans, cheese and tender brisket baked together and topped with cubes of avocado and slivers of red chiles. Finish them off bite by bite with a little lightly dressed cabbage for a cooling crunch, and lament that so many bars have such a hard time getting this snack right.
There is a lot of pampering and spooning at Mesero Miguel. You may notice another waiter tenderly serving queso from a bowl onto small plates that have been adorned with two chips, placed carefully with tongs, one at a time. The same act accompanies the arrival of an order of guacamole. It's not hard to imagine the day when melted cheese is spooned directly onto your quivering lower lip by Rodriguez himself, but while at times the service seems a little much, it's nice to eat in a dining room that for the most part is filled with a warm and well-trained staff.
If only the queso itself were so endearing. This version makes use of processed cheese, hearts of palm, spinach and poblano chiles, and resembles a T.G.I. Friday's appetizer more than a bowl of molten dairy appropriate for a modern Mexican restaurant. The chunky guacamole is a more fitting way to start your meal, as are the gratis chips that come with a rotating cast of salsas. Simple tomato salsas, tomatillo salsas, chile salsas, roasted-chile salsas — they arrive three at a time in small porcelain bowls along with a small tumbler of sturdy and crunchy chips.
If you've come for Tex-Mex, the chips are a harbinger of a menu that's filled with brisket tacos with melted cheese, chicken enchiladas with salsa verde, cheese enchiladas with meat sauce and other familiar items grouped together on the menu to let you pick any two for $12.
Don't let the cost fool you. Rodriguez makes it back on $12 margaritas and other plates that can reach as high as $47 for a prime NY strip steak, and run the gamut from a diver scallop and pineapple ceviche to an odd riff on pork fried rice.
While Chinese and Mexican fusion restaurants have cropped up in recent years, the dish is a one-off — an odd mismatch of ingredients that you'll recognize elsewhere on the menu, heaped in a massive bowl and topped with a fried egg. Morsels of pork, shrimp and mushrooms make for a fried rice dish that is better than those served at many Chinese restaurants, but it's a distraction here.
So is the range chicken served on stiff chipotle grits. The waiter includes crispy skin in his sales pitch but the exterior steams away to a flaccid rubbery texture beneath a blanket of lightly dressed arugula. Halibut tacos might be better if they were made with fresher fish (the smell arrived just before the plate) and a scallop ceviche with avocado and pineapple looked dull, as if it had been made hours before it was carefully sculpted into a long rectangular shape on the plate. Plates like these show why restaurants with a more singular focus are more likely to have thoughtful execution.
Rodriguez's Mesero Miguel tries to offer diners too much, reaching well beyond his menu at Mr. Mesero, which offers what he describes as American standards and Mexican classics. Now ceviches, a flatbread, a lobster hand roll and other curious dishes like the rosa pistola, which perches pieces of seared scallops the size of gumdrops over a tall shot glass filled with coconut curry soup, add even more noise.
What's worse is that these dishes detract from some of the great ones. Why make it hard to find the tacos filled with a crispy duck confit and tangy pickled onions to cut a subtle sweetness? The braised pork served with meaty, earthy mushrooms dressed in a cilantro zigzag of pastel green is quite good too. Choose the flour tortillas over the corn, which are so greasy they drip, and roll yourself a porky cigar.
Enjoy food like this with a decent margarita and an order of that guacamole and you'll wobble out the door more than satisfied. Or just sit at the bar, have a drink and people-watch. It's not hard to make the argument to sip on cocktails and graze on smaller plates if you're lucky enough to get a good piece of real estate. Just don't get caught up in the dishes that wrap a world's worth of flavors in a single tortilla, because that's when things fall apart.
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