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November 18, 2004
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Mesa Grill - Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino

One of the reasons you go to a serious restaurant for lunch is to see if you'd like to eat there for dinner. After five lunches at Bobby 'Boy Meets Grill' Flay's Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace, I'm still looking for a reason. There are twelve entrees on the lunch menu and I've tried nine of them. Of the nine, only the spicy chicken and sweet potato hash with poached eggs and green chile hollandaise, came close to the sharp, deep, and upbeat flavors I expected. Seemingly exotic appetizers like grilled shrimp cilantro pesto quesadilla, and a goat cheese 'queso fundido' with roasted green chile sauce, have also passed these lips to little effect. It may seem almost impossible, but almost everything tried, from the not-very-spicy tuna tartar with blistered serrano hot sauce, to jerk spiced blue nose snapper with papaya black bean salsa, was bland and boring. And almost to an item, all of it sounded better than it tasted.

I remember eating at Douglas Rodriquez's Patria and the original Mesa Grill six years ago in New York City. Then, the nueva latina food movement was in full swing, and I was blown away by the combinations of sharp flavors and intriguing ingredients that both restaurants featured. I can't recall if I had something called cocoanut and jalapeno pesto on my scallops at either restaurant, but if I did, I'm certain that the tastes of cocoanut and jalapeno were in full bloom on the plate and on my palate. Unfortunately, at this knockoff, there was barely a hint of either - a criticism that could be applied across the board.

Likewise, where the sixteen spices in the chicken salad were was anyone's guess. I tasted but three - salt, pepper, and slightly hot pepper. And the smoked chicken quesadilla with toasted garlic creme fraiche was so dull, one of my dining companions compared it to something you would find at Taco Bell, and I don't think he was far off. Most of the sauces are applied with an eyedropper, which does nothing for decent cornmeal crusted oysters-supposedly accented with mango-scotch bonnet hot sauce-- or the ancho chile-honey glazed salmon with a roasted jalapeno crema that I could barely find or taste.

By now everyone knows Las Vegas is the celebrity-chef-cashing-in center of the food universe. Normally we don't mind, since selling out is the American (and Vegas), way after all. And most locals are grateful that Sirio Maccioni, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril et al saved us from prime rib purgatory. But when the casino money machines foist a dumbed-down, retread of a restaurant on us, because they think the hoi polloi won't know the difference, it's time to call a spade a spade, and force Big Bobby to come here and actually use one.

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