I can think of two London restaurants, Montana, in Fulham Road, and its newer sister establishment Dakota in Notting Hill Gate [to be reviewed next week] which would protest vociferously at such a suggestion. Fair enough. Their zesty menus have an authentic New American ring to them, with such items as tortilla crusted black-legged chicken breast and crispy bourbon oak-smoked quail. But they are the exception that proves the rule. Montana's food is consistently average to decent, a gutsy enough flag- wave for a form of cooking that is barely acknowledged over here, but it is rarely thrilling. It suffers, of course, from a lack of competition.
In New York just now, by contrast, competition is hot. Chefs are falling over themselves to produce waggish menus rooted in the ideal of local produce from the far flung corners of the nation dressed up for a night in the Big Apple. Thus Robert De Niro's famous Tribeca Grill offers watercress and endive salad with spiced walnuts and Hudson Valley cheeses. And a side order of what we would call champ is described as sour cream and scallion mashed Yukons (Yukon is the US's most famous potato growing area). Even the hotel I stayed in, the charmingly eccentric but exquisitely civilised Inn at Irving Place, has passed over urban chic in favour of oak-panelled splendour in the style of a Connecticut country house. Their faultless American version of English tea, which has become a regular fixture for the wives of New York's most powerful men, includes "home- made Oregon preserves".
But the best meal I had in New York this time round was at the Mesa Grill. Its spacious, high-ceilinged dining room is done up in a bold colour scheme of sea green, sunflower yellow and rusty pink that plainly says (and you have to listen) "Santa Fe is come to New York."
The menu, as it happens, says much the same thing, incorporating as it does some classic Mexican forms but serving them up with plenty of wised- up New York spin. It's a menu that reads well, full of tempting sounding flavours and ingredients that swing between the authentically (sounding) homespun and the teasingly exotic. Best of all, it's a menu that you feel you haven't read before - certainly not in London.
We were 10 in all, which meant I got to try a fair number of dishes. The best were outstanding, and even the least good were still worthwhile. My starter of smoked lamb and goat's cheese enchilada with an almond mole sauce was in the former class, the soft flour tortilla rolled around tender lamb that seemed to have been hot-smoked to order, and the mole deep, subtle and almost chocolatey. The smothering of goat's cheese, fresh and loose, meant that the plate got messier as it got emptier, and tastier as it got messier. Heavenly.
There were several takers for the cultivated mussels steamed with red chilli pesto broth - and several takers, I'm sorry to say, for the inevitable joke about which books the cultivated mussels had been reading this week. Happily the mussels were classy enough to ignore this puerile banter: they were fat, deep orange in colour, and very tasty. Incidentally "broths" are very big at the moment in New York. At least, the word broth is very big. It doesn't mean much, except that there is some residual liquid in the plate or bowl, which has not been sufficiently fussed over or interfered with to earn the description "sauce", but is nonetheless reckoned by the chef to be quite tasty, and worth a few slurps or a dunking of bread after the meaty bits have been finished. In the case of the mussels, the slurping of the broth was certainly a rewarding activity - the rewards being the sweet tang of fresh shellfish at the top of the palate, the glowing afterburn of chilli at the back of the throat, and the hum of garlic and cilantro (that's coriander to you and me) through the whole nasal passage.
My main course was pan-roasted venison with a cranberry cinnamon sauce, served with whipped sweet potatoes and chipotle (mild smoked chilli): heady stuff, and the kind of bold combination of flavours and textures that could have gone to pieces on the plate. In fact it was another bull's eye, the spiced fruit going well with the pink, fatless meat, and the tobaccoey tang of the chipotle providing a bitter note that stopped it all getting too sickly. Whipped sweet potatoes are a dreamy concoction you could easily make at home.
Apart from a slightly irrelevant lump of slightly indifferent blue corn bread sitting wetly in the middle, the shellfish and andouille gumbo was also widely liked, proving that the combination of pork and fish, in this case spicy sausage with scallops, oysters and crab, can be winning when a chef knows what he's doing.
The whole table shared and enjoyed an absurdly over the top platter of house desserts, prepared by a pastry chef with an absurdly over the top name - Wayne Harley Brachman III, as credited on the menu. Okay, I made up the "III", but it's pretty good all the same. (For the sake of even handedness, I feel I should also mention the main chef by name. He's called, rather snappily, Bobby Flay. Do they make this stuff up?) Wayne's world of puddings included such delights as banana ice-cream cake with spicy cashew buttercrunch and sasparilla sauce, a three chocolate ice-cream sandwich, and chocolate peanut Graham cake with house-made roasted marshmallow and peanut butter ice-cream. Some of these items were almost as good as they sound.
We drank Margheritas with the meal and then went on to experiment with Mesa's amazing list of over 40 special Tequilas and Mescals. Some were excellent, and rather thrilling to drink in a shot, others were just peculiar. No great surprise that I can't remember any of their names.Reuse content