I must confess: I have avoided Triangle Restaurant Week since I first heard of it several years ago. To me, the entire affair smacked of an amateur-hour prix fixe circuit, appealing to those who might visit a new or expensive restaurant only for Thanksgiving or Valentine’s Day. Like New Year’s Eve and Halloween, it’s a time for infrequent revelers, not discerning imbibers.
But this week, I decided to approach the event with a different, refreshed attitude. With almost 100 restaurants participating across the Triangle, I have the opportunity to explore restaurants I’ve been meaning to try or that weren’t even on my radar, all for a reasonable price. And with that many options, how many amateurs can I really encounter in a week?
After scanning the event’s listings and checking the menus, I set up reservations for all seven nights. For Monday, or night one, I choose Mez, an upscale contemporary Mexican place in RTP—a real hit for business meetings
I walked into the airy dining room around 8:30 p.m., surprised to see so many diners on a Monday night. I wondered if the rush had anything to do with the Restaurant Week menu or if I would be treated differently as a “Restaurant Week” diner. Did I have to tell the hostess? If I did, would she regard me as opportunistic riffraff?
Ah, but this gracious hostess didn’t bat an eye. “Oh, yes,” she said, sweetly, “the Restaurant Week menus are already on all of the tables.” She grabbed the regular menu and the drinks list, too, and led me through the dining room.
After our waiter approached, I asked him if Restaurant Week brought in lots of diners for typically slow week nights.
“This is our first year being part of this,” he beamed, “so we’ll see. But some of my guests tonight did come in and go with the set menu.”
Now, on to the three-course meal—in a word, divine. I worried that the options would be boring. For Mez’s menu, though, the “antojitos” offered guacamole and chips, fresh salsa and chips, crema elote—a creamy corn soup topped with roasted corn, queso and poblano rajas—and chicharrones dusted with arbol powder and lime. We ordered the crema elote and shored up our order with guacamole and salsa.
We barely paid attention as the bowls were placed before us, deeply engrossed as we were in the bizarre details of my dating life. Inattentively, we started to eat our soup, focused more on the woes of love than the corn chowder at hand. But after a couple of spoonfuls, we both stopped talking and just kept eating.
“Oh my God,” offered my dinner companion, “how did they get it so thick and rich without it being grainy at all?” The pale golden soup was utterly silken and sweet, almost the consistency of a corn pudding. The waiter said he loved the soup so much he would dip pretty much anything in it, including chips and burritos. I would bathe in it, pal.
Of the four second-course options, we chose the chile-braised pork shank with hominy-cotija cheese grits, sauteed kale, cabbage escabeche and queso. The moment I put my fork to the shank, the meat fell away from the bone onto beautiful violet cabbage beneath. The creamy, slightly sweet hominy grits were densely grained, the perfect foil to the sautéed kale. The elements played together beautifully , like a well-rehearsed quartet.
For dessert, I chose churros, or quick-fried dough served with Mexican hot chocolate and whipped cream. This half-Mexican Southerner loves churros, but what’s not to love about deep-fried pastry dipped in a slightly spicy, cinammony warm creamy liquid? (At some point, I am going to explore both sides of my heritage through other desserts by making a chipotle-flavored banana pudding or a pineapple upside cake with cilantro frosting … but not tonight.) The light-as-air concoctions, dusted in cinnamon and sugar, were fluffy and moist on the inside, almost like a soufflé. Most restaurants pair churros with a cloyingly sweet chocolate syrup or caramel sauce. Mez smartly serves it with a traditional cocoa spiced, with chili powder. I drank from the bowl, truly in the throes of Restaurant Week ecstasy. All for $30.
I may never have tried Mez, given its RTP proximity. But last night, thanks to the relatively low risks of Restaurant Week, I discovered an inspired alternative to the tired ol’ Mexican joints that pepper the Triangle.
Yes, Mez, I will be back.
Up next, on Tuesday: Babylon