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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Hitting the High Note

Torch and Merci's Spirits Lounge at Meson de Mesilla offer fine dining or classy bistro fare — with live jazz.


In the fully remodeled Meson de Mesilla — new owner Cali McCord's "million-dollar baby" — it seems the innkeeper-restaurateur-singer has gotten all she was after. McCord's classy, high-end inn sports two fabulous restaurants — Torch, the more formal, fine-dining option, and the casual Merci's Spirits Lounge, with classy, true bistro fare. Plus McCord has a platform for her fabulous singing, with her house band, "Smoke," creating a swanky jazz club.

To sample it all requires several visits, which admittedly will put an pinch on the wallet. But the experience is well worth budgeting for.

Lunch first. Merci's Spirits Lounge serves lunch seven days a week. My companion and I arrive to find the place pleasantly sunny and open — no dark, smoky lounge feel here. A huge window allows a view of pecan orchards and the Organ Mountains beyond. The clientele includes gentlemen who look as if they've just stepped off the golf course along with some Ladies Who Lunch.

Our server arrives promptly and we select from the ample wine list ($6-$12/glass; $16-$110/bottles, most around $38). The restaurant boasts it has the most extensive beer menu around, with 11 on draft and 21 bottled. And those seeking a Martini Lunch won't be disappointed — with themes ranging from the refreshing Prickly Pear or Pomegranate to the decadent Butter Pecan or Chocolate ($8-$12).

We choose the Lump Crab Cake ($10) from the "baskets and appetizers," the spinach salad ($10) and a Muffeletta sandwich ($9). Other "basket" options include Pomme Frites with aioli ($4), Lemongrass Chipotle Wings ($7/half-dozen, $12/dozen) and Smoked Pork Ribs ($14) with raspberry-ancho BBQ sauce and gingered cole slaw. The ladies at the next table are making a fuss over this dish, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the slaw and trying to not get any sauce on their brooches and lam.

Lunch entrees include grilled salmon on mushroom risotto with grilled broccoli rabe ($12), New York strip steak ($14) and apple- and brie-stuffed chicken breast over basmati rice with wilted spinach ($10).

Our lunch arrives. The crab cake is artfully plated, tender, and slightly spicy. The spinach salad — with duck confit, marinated goat cheese, pistachios and passion fruit-ginger vinaigrette — rounds out my meal and makes up for the crab cake being smallish. It is an appetizer, after all. The muffeletta sandwich is generous — a slice of the Mediterranean itself on savory foccaccia. Layers of cured meats and gruyere are complemented by an olive and orange relish, shaved radicchio and aioli. The accompanying fries are crisp and excellent, and the ketchup on the side has a delightful kick.

The only disappointment is dessert, as our server informs us that aside from simple ice cream, there is none today. Since Torch doesn't serve dinner on Tuesday, the chef has made no desserts yet that week. A word to the wise and sweet-toothed: Avoid disappointment.



Dinner at Torch is an upscale treat. As we arrive in our finery, the place is in full swing and the energetic McCord is singing her heart out. Some nights she starts out here in the restaurant, then finishes the evening in the lounge.

Service is attentive, and our cocktails arrive right away. Deciding to go all out, we order two appetizers — baby artichokes braised with chorizo, clams and sweet peas ($12) and Shrimp Cocktail Gribiche ($12) — as well as the radicchio ($10) and Caesar ($9) salads. The artichoke dish is smoky from the chorizo, and the clams and artichokes are tender. The shrimp cocktail, with its basil and lime zest, cornichons and capers, puts a new twist on this standard appetizer. The Caesar salad is a classic and the radicchio salad is a standout, with grapefruit, manchego cheese and cashews, dressed with bacon-honey vinaigrette. It's perfect to help build appetite for our entrees, which arrive after a sophisticated pause — just the right amount of time to enjoy some wine and more of McCord's golden voice.

Our flash-roasted salmon ($27) arrives sliced and seared, served with a cashew tabbouleh and saffron reduction sauce. The pheasant ($30) is roasted with a balsamic and strawberry glaze, served over Thai basil polenta and finished with seared foie gras. Exquisite and rich.

Having indulged so, we go light and split the citrus-y Gele Parfait ($8) for dessert.



A few weeks later, I revisit Meson de Mesilla with a friend, this time to try Merci's Spirits for dinner. This proves to be my favorite taste of the place.

We decide to make our meal out of drinks and tidbits, and start with one of the many "flights," choices of three to five drinks paired with appetizers. We choose the red wine flight ($20), which pairs short glasses of pinot noir, merlot and cabernet with a manchego and plumped cherry salad, a terrine of cabrales, grapes and walnuts, and smoky lomo sausage drizzled with truffle oil. The pairings are absolutely perfect, complementing the wines and offering three distinctive tastes.

We move on to more wine, by the glass this time, and take our time over a series of appetizers. The flatbread is warm and tender, topped with roasted garlic and sliced fresh basil. Three perfect little lamb chops are grilled just right, rare and tender. The olive assortment is ample and varied.

This time we've both left room for dessert. Though the crme brle ($8) is a bit soft to be called "classic," the caramelized sugar is just right and the custard pleasantly vanilla-y and not too sweet. The Tartine Valencia ($8) — a chocolate ganache and orange mousseline slice with raspberries and a touch of Grand Marnier — is delightfully decadent. It completes a meal we will savor for some time to come.

It doesn't matter if you go to Torch for dinner or Merci's Spirits for lunch or dinner, for the nightclub jazz or the food — just go! McCord's extreme makeover of Meson de Mesilla was worth the wait. — Donna Clayton Lawder



Torch, dinner, Wed.-Sat., 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Merci's Spirits Lounge, lunch and dinner, Sun.-Tues., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Both in Meson de Mesilla,1803 Avenida de Mesilla, Mesilla, 525-9212.



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