When I started Gil’s Thrilling…way back in 1996, my goals were to celebrate New Mexico’s restaurant scene and to provide an escape from the mean-spirited dialogue so prevalent among petulant politicians who have long forgotten they work for us. I’ve tried not to lash out against politics through this medium I’m privileged to steward, but sometimes my frustration leaks out. For those occasions I apologize. I promise to try harder to focus on the joy I experience every time I dine with good friends. When I’m upset with the latest shenanigans in Washington, D.C. and Santa Fe, those friends buoy my spirits with convivial discourse over a great meal.
Such was the case when I met Linda Johansen (my former boss and the doyenne of Information Technology at the University of New Mexico) for dinner at Mesa Provisions. You might think when IT propeller heads get together we’d talk shop for hours on end, but that’s not the case when Linda and I break bread. Linda may be even more passionate about gastronomy than this self-glossed gastronome. As a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judge, she recently had the privilege of judging at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, the largest barbecue contest in the world. She’s also used her discernment of culinary excellence as judge at other national and local events (including the world’s largest matanza in Belen).
Linda’s taste buds and olfactory senses are superior to mine. Both of us can generally tell when a menu item will have the palate-pleasing qualities we crave as well as when those dishes have discordant elements. We’re not food snobs, but we do recognize qualities that make good and bad foods. We look and hope for the best in all dishes we share. Share is the operative word here. We order and share copious amounts of food–appetizers, main courses, desserts–all the while chatting up food centric television shows, restaurants and personal cooking conquests. Unlike me she’s mastered (if it’s possible to do so) Oaxacan mole.
Having heard so much about Mesa Provisions, we were excited to experience one of Albuquerque’s hottest reservations. Mesa Provisions, which launched in 2021, is situated in the heart of Nob Hill at the former first home of Canvas Artistry. The space is bright and airy despite being rather Liliputian. Though not especially commodious and every table being occupied, Mesa Provisions doesn’t feel crowded. We managed to secure a corner table with a vantage point that let us take in the entire confines of the well-appointed and well-lit space.
Mesa Provisions is where owner-chef Steve Riley, an Albuquerque native, plies his craft to high acclaim. After just over two decades of working for other people, the affable chef’s time has come. He’s got all the credentials and the pedigree to excel in a tough fine-dining market. That pedigree induces working with uber chef Jennifer James at Le Cafe Miche for nearly five years. He then spent several years in California before returning home to Albuquerque where he became executive chef at Farm & Table. His success at Farm & Table was the impetus for launching Mesa Provisions.
Don’t be surprised when at least one of the dishes you order is delivered by a bearded, heavily tatted guy sporting a baseball cap and an apron befitting either a chef or a blacksmith. That’s Chef Riley, a unique cat who’ll chat you up if time permits. Chef Riley accepts compliments with humility and seems genuinely concerned that all his guests have a good experience at Mesa Provisions. There’s no doubt his guest orientation was a factor in Mesa Provisions being voted by Edible New Mexico readers for a Local Hero: Restaurant in Albuquerque award in 2023. Well, that and culinary fare that’s been blowing diners away.
At a fine dining restaurant like Mesa Provisions, presentation–plating as an art form–is almost as important as taste. It’s true after all that we eat with our eyes first. Every plate delivered to your table is an edible work of art, a beautiful and purposeful arrangement of items in a manner that is stylish and visually appealing. It’s as if every plate was arranged with the eye of a photographer–compositions that bring the various elements of the dish together in harmony. Even more than me, Linda takes the time to appreciate plating before digging in.
With the analytical bent that has served us both well at UNM, we perused the menu with a rigor and discernment Sherlock Holmes would envy. We scrutinized the Southwest inspired, playful menu of seasonal dishes much like we would a prospective IT project requiring an automated solution. That menu is a composite of familiar dishes, some with unique interpretations. It’s a pricy menu (we wondered if the eight-dollar biscuits were made from gold flour), but that’s about par for fine-dining restaurants (insert your own pejorative here).
At the recommendation of friends from Tulsa who had dined at Mesa Provisions two nights previous, we ordered the beet and orange salad (pistachio, Castelfranco radicchio, mint) even though neither of us is a fan of radicchio, a lettuce lookalike noted for its acerbic flavor profile, especially when eaten raw. Radicchio is often paired on salads with sweet or acidic ingredients to balance flavors. Predictably, Linda and I loved the beets, the quartered orange pieces, the sprigs of mint and the accompanying sauces. The raddicio not so much.
There are over 1,500 different varieties of dates varieties grown around the world. Dates grow in warm climates like California, Arizona, Florida and the Middle East. Because of their large size, almost caramel-like flavor and a soft, chewy texture, medjool dates are among the most popular of all dates. It’s become almost de rigueur for fine dining and tapas restaurants to serve bacon-wrapped dates. Mesa Provisions’ version is a composite of complementary flavors–smokey and salty bacon, earthy and sharp Gorgonzola, delicate and buttery crushed Marcona almonds in a sherry and date sauce. A serving consisted of four dates. We could have eaten a dozen.
Perhaps if Bugs Bunny had ordered Mesa Provisions’ spiced carrots, the snarky wabbit wouldn’t have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. He would have stopped to enjoy maybe our favorite appetizer of the evening. We loved every element of this dish though we would have preferred softer carrots. A small pool of tamarind yogurt with smaller puddles of ginger honey form the canvas for pomegranate, pistachio and mint. The carrots were glorious in their presentation and delivered flavors that harken back to Moroccan dishes and ingredients.
Despite rising food costs and runaway inflation, a Costco rotisserie chicken still costs $4.99, just as it has for more than two decades. No matter what restaurateurs do, that cheap chicken will forever be the standard against which every restaurant chicken will be compared–particularly when poultry is priced rather steeply. Mesa Provisions’ smoked half chicken is about twenty dollars more than Costco’s. You do get quite a bit more than just chicken at Mesa and it’s far superior than any sides (hot dogs?) Costco might offer. Mesa’s half chicken is not only smoked, but it’s brushed lightly with a sweet red chile glaze (which is most appreciated by diners who enjoy the skin). The chicken shares space with a cabbage slaw atop a slightly piquant pepita cream. The slaw is rather nondescript, but the pepita cream has real personality.
Served with the smoked half chicken is a bowl of New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable–pinto beans with two duck fat tortillas. Of course this prompted a discussion about the Frontier Restaurant’s machine-made tortillas. Linda is far more accepting of those tortillas than your humble blogger is (remember I grew up with the best tortillera in Peñasco.) The duck fat tortillas have the characteristic pinto pony char and pliability which makes them the perfect “New Mexican spoon.” It did my heart good to see Linda use the tortillas as her spoon, too. Duck fat is increasingly growing in popularity thanks to its subtle flavor and silky mouthfeel. It makes everything taste better.
For years I’ve been over the moon about guanciale (pork cheeks), but haven’t always been a fan of beef cheeks. Mesa Provisions’ version of the latter was recommended by friends from Tulsa. The red chile braised beef cheeks are as tender as stew meat that has braised for hours on end. It’s break apart and fork tender. Good as the beef cheeks were, what we loved best about this plate was the pureed celery root which had the texture and even flavor of ethereal mashed potatoes. Seriously, this extremely delicate and light offering almost seems too perfect for this world. Of course, the red chile braising “gravy” went very well with the pureed celery root.
Desserts (“Sweet Stuff” on the menu) are as beautifully composed and creative as any post-prandial pleasure-giver you’ll find in Albuquerque. Take the chocolate entremet. Entremets are defined by Dessertians as “a cake composed of multiple components assembled into layers, encased in a mousse, enrobed with a glaze and topped with fine decorations.” I first had an entremet in France, but largely preferred gateaus. Most desserts are comprised of complementary elements. The choclate entremet surprised us in its bold declaration that ingredients don’t always have to play off one another. Neither of us “got” the black currant, a strong, tart, tannin-rich element that obfuscated other flavors. The canvas for the hemispheric chocolate was a pate sucrée, a sweet French tart dough with a cookie-like texture that’s sturdy enough to support many kinds of fillings without turning into a crumbly mess.
Both Linda and I love desserts in which sweet and savory work concordantly together. We’re also paramours of pecan pie. There was no doubt we’d be sharing Mesa Provisions’ pretzel pecan pie. Pretzels and pecans work in tandem to provide the perfect foil for the sweetness of the corn syrup and chocolate ganache topping (not to mention the drizzle of caramel on the plate). A single dollop of bourbon creme fraiche lends just a hint of the adult beverage so popular in the South where bourbon pecan pie is a religion.
After my first spoonful of the ginger ice cream, I remarked to Linda that it would make a wonderful palate cleanser for sushi. Initially we both thought the ginger flavor was a bit much, but the more we ate the better it tasted. We ordered it as a topping for the pecan pie, but enjoyed it by itself so much that notion went out the window. Ginger has a comforting kick for those of us who love it, but to others it tastes like soap. Count Linda and I as preferring ginger–even over MaryAnn.
In an interview with Edible New Mexico Chef Riley declared “I love to cook all types of different cuisines. Food is about connection in so many ways. I love to find similarities in cuisines and connect them, breaking those boundaries yet hopefully maintaining the integrity. The term Southwest-inspired is really a result of a need to put a label on what we do at Mesa Provisions, and every day I am inspired by everything around me here.” That inspiration is evident in the elegant plating and innovative use of ingredients on every dish at Mesa Provisions.
3120 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2023
# OF VISITS 1
BEST BET: Spiced Carrots, Bacon Wrapped Medjool Dates, Beet & Orange Salad, Ginger Ice Cream, Smoked Half Chicken, Beef Cheeks, Pretzel Pecan Pie, Chocolate Entemet