Mez: Chapel Hill Restaurant

By Moreton Neal



MEZ: The Chapel Hill Restaurant Group Does it Again

There’s just no arguing with the old cliché: “The first taste is with the eye.” In the case of MEZ, my first taste occurred before darkening the door of the handsome new building sandwiched between massive steel and glass structures on Page Road. It happened in the parking lot where spaces near the front were conspicuously labeled “HYBRID.” I pulled in my new Prius a little sanctimoniously, already enjoying my dining experience.

MEZ is a fascinating hybrid in itself. One of the first “green” restaurants in the country, and one of the first urban Mexican restaurants in the Southeast, its food has the earthy taste of Veracruz, but its sleek façade is completely at home in corporate RTP. It is owned and operated by the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group (Mickey Ewell, Greg Overbeck, Pete Dorrance and Kenny Carlson), a synergistic partnership that has always been ahead of the curve. The group’s fifth and most ambitious venture, MEZ proves the group hasn’t lost its touch since launching 518 West in Raleigh over a decade ago.

Chapel Hillian Ewell started the company after he opened Spanky’s on Franklin Street. With no experience in the food business back in the 1970s, Ewell was an astute businessman who recognized a need — for a good hamburger — and filled it, serving outstanding burgers now for over 30 years. Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson bused tables and washed dishes at Spanky’s, eventually working up to team managers of the eatery.

Partners by 1986, the four men identified another unfilled niche in town: a seafood restaurant. Overbeck says, “Squid’s was conceived as a combination of Southern fish camp, oyster bar and Northeastern lobster shack.” Its menu offered seafood classics from Calabash to Kennebunkport. Locals were hooked from day one, and it continues to fill up nightly on Fordham Boulevard.

Their next project was modeled after a Georgetown pizzeria and featured the first wood burning pizza oven in this area. 411 West Italian Café opened on West Franklin in 1990 featuring pizzas, but Italian and other Mediterranean specialties dot the menu. “That region is just a starting point for our chef,” says Overbeck, who describes the menu as eclectic, even though it has consistently been voted “Best Italian Restaurant in the Triangle” in readers’ polls over the years.

518 West followed in 1996, repeating both the format and the success of 411. The eatery was one of the first in a neighborhood considered risky — Glenwood South, years before the area became the popular restaurant row it is today.

Now, more than a decade later, MEZ forges a new trail. Described by Overbeck as “upscale casual,” MEZ is a lunch draw for Research Triangle businesses, and a convenient meeting place between Raleigh and Durham/Chapel Hill. New hotels under construction should add legions to its following. Its story is typical of the group’s modus operandi — identify a void and fill it, with distinctive panache.

This time the unfilled niche was “contemporary Mexican” — exemplified by New York’s Rosa Mexicana and Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Adobo Grill, restaurants specializing in South-of-the-Border flavors using fresh local produce. The partners sent Chef Aaron Stumb, a Wake Tech graduate and Crook’s Corner alum, up to Adobo for training. They sought a native Mexican chef, David Peraza, to help create a menu, and voila — a sleek, urban-style Mexican restaurant smack in the middle of the Triangle. Its green-ness extends to the dining area where it is joined by orange and yellow and blue. Cheerful tropical colors bathe the walls of the vast bar/dining room. You almost forget the building is surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

The food is as colorful as the décor. Shredded chicken tacos in an avocado-tomatillo salsa, mahi Veracruzano (olives, capers and peppers), chipotle-infused tilapia tacos, crab cakes with a hint of mint and cilantro served with a crunchy mango-jicama slaw — all are well-prepared and bursting with bright, clean flavors. Soups were lovely, especially the unusually savory melon with champagne and buttermilk, and the simple fresh corn chowder.

Portions are large, but save room for the sweets. Our mango upside-down cake and chocolate soufflé cake were delicious, and the tres leche cake, exceptional. Served with a custard sauce drizzled with caramel and topped with toasted, cinnamon-dusted almonds, I’m still drooling over it days later.

At cocktail hour, MEZ serves $2 tacos at the bar (the excellent fish taco will set you back $3) along with its delicious Margaritas, mojitos, sangritas and sangrias. Here I was initiated into the joys of caipirinha, the classic Brazilian concoction made from gandaia cachaca, lime and sugar, which instantly became my new favorite summer cocktail.

Like its sibling eateries in the Chapel Hill Group, MEZ offers Triangle food lovers style, consistency and good value. Ewell, Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson have a strong track record discerning the culinary zeitgeist here, then responding by creating the right place at the right time. Another cliché comes to mind, “If you build it, they will come.”

With MEZ, the group has hit the ball out of the park. My crystal ball tells me that this American-Mexican hybrid, like the Prius, is destined to be a raging success.

 

Nibbles

After the closing of South in North Hills, the Urban Food Group is remodeling the space for its latest venture, a French-style brasserie. Chef de Cuisine Rob Bland brings experience from New York’s famous Les Halles to the Triangle with a menu offering classic French brasserie fare. Plans include sidewalk and patio dining. The brasserie will be open continuously from breakfast to dinner.

• • • •

Revolution, Jim Anile’s new venture previously scheduled to open this spring, promises to be in business in downtown Durham by summer’s end. Anile headed the kitchen at Il Palio for several years prior to his first solo endeavor in the Triangle. For news of the opening date, link to www.revolutionrestaurant.com.

• • • •

Dream Catcher Café patrons will miss the little French bistro, now closed in Chapel Hill’s Timberlyne Shopping Center.

• • • •

Bistro 607 on Glenwood South has also closed, making way for Tasca Brava, Raleigh’s only Spanish restaurant to move into its spot. The owners of 607 can be found at the new Globe just down the street.

• • • •

Tim Lyons, one of the most talented chefs in the Triangle, will celebrate the first anniversary of blu seafood and bar on July 11 with appetizers and blu-tinis. Check out details at www.bluseafoodandbar.com.

• • • •

 “Diamonds Are a Chef’s Best Friend” dinners continue with another sumptuous feast July 17. It will be hosted by Chef Jason Cunningham at Fairview Restaurant at the Washington Duke Hotel. Call 493-6699 for reservations.

• • • •

Gregory's is back in Cary after an absence of three years. Owner Greg Papadopoulos has re-opened at 111 Shannon Oaks Circle offering a familiar breakfast/brunch/lunch menu, including seafood crepes, banana chocolate chip pancakes, huevos rancheros and a large selection of sandwiches.

• • • •

This month, Ruth’s Chris will celebrate the grand opening of its new steakhouse at North Hills. The upscale franchise plans to open two more venues in North Carolina, one in Durham and another in Wilmington, both by the end of the year.

• • • •

Metro toasts Raleigh-native Jean Anderson, whose book, A Love Affair with Southern Cooking, won the James Beard Award for best “Americana” cookbook at the foundation’s June awards ceremony. And another toast to Crook’s Corner former busboy Robert Stehling, named Best Chef in the Southeast. Stehling and his wife Nunally Kersh own Hominy Grill in Charleston.

 

BEACH EATS
Gourmets heading to the Morehead area will enjoy Café Zito for exotic flavors set in an old home and the venerable Windandsea near William’s restaurant on the waterfront. The new Piccata’s on Arendell Street serves eclectic Mediterranean fare in the spot formerly occupied by Calypso Café. The newly expanded Watermark and the newer Scotch Harbor offer carnivores a choice with their fish at Atlantic Station Shopping Center on Atlantic Beach … toward Fort Macon, Amos Mosquito’s specializes in Calabash-style fried shrimp with the traditional fixins’.
• • • •
For sandwiches, try the New York Deli; for burgers, Beach Bums. El’s shrimp burgers have been pleasing locals for 50 years. Pizza cravings can be satisfied at Michaelangelo's at Atlantic Station Shopping Center and Emerald Plantation Shopping Center.
• • • •
In Beaufort, you can’t beat the Blue Moon for inventive seafood dishes, among them “Bernie’s Shrimp,” named for our own Bernie Reeves. Stillwater still reigns as the dean of fine cuisine on the waterfront, providing a lovely view and an ambitious wine list. The sophisticated interior and menu make Sharpies on Front Street a choice for yachtsman and landlubbers alike.
• • • •
The Wilmington/Wrightsville area has become a magnet for talented chefs and offers a plethora of chef-owned eateries. A sampling of these small gems are Marc’s on Market, Artisan and Mason’s Haunt and Catch. Among the tried and true are Savannah’s and Dockside in Wrightsville, the stellar Port Land Grille and Brasserie du Soleil both in Lumina Station, and Caprice Bistro and Deluxe in downtown Wilmington.
• • • •
Among the many Asian restaurants in the area, some of the most interesting are Yosake, the Bento Box and my own favorite, the exuberant Indochine.