The Nob Hill dining scene appears to have rebounded splendidly from the darkest days of the pandemic.
Last year saw the opening of M’tucci’s Bar Roma and the speakeasy-style bar Teddy Roe’s in the back. In the fall, the gastropub 3128 Social House opened next door to Gather, another newcomer that features tapas and cocktails. To the east, the recently opened wine bar Central Bodega and plant-based Lucky Goose face each other across Central.
Perhaps the most buzzworthy of the recent arrivals is Mesa Provisions, set on the south side of Central Avenue between a tattoo parlor and a burger shop. The excitement around the opening centered on Steve Riley, former executive chef at Farm and Table. Riley, who worked for years under Jennifer James of Nob Hill stalwart frenchish, was voted Best Chef in Albuquerque by readers of Edible New Mexico in 2020.
Riley reportedly wanted Nob Hill as the setting for his first solo venture, and he found an ideal space in 2021 at the former home of craft cocktail and small bites spot Canvas Artistry. The place has been given a modest redesign. The brick facing around the entrance was painted white, and inside, strings of light bulbs hang above a tile-faced bar, lending a festive air to the place.
Also lending a festive air: the crowd that filled the dining room on a recent Saturday night. My wife and I felt fortunate to have grabbed the last reservation for dinner. We parked in one of the numerous metered spaces just west of the restaurant on Richmond Drive. The meters stop running at 6 p.m.
Mesa Provisions’ compact menu fits on one side of a page. There are no divisions for appetizers or salads; just a list of items that run from $8 all the way up to $48 for a 16-ounce grilled ribeye steak. The roster of dishes is a testament to chef Riley’s creativity and versatility. Even the familiar plates have inventive touches that make them unlike anything you’ve had before.
The winter menu features some hearty, meaty offerings like a Mushroom Bisque ($8) that was the most mushroomy version of the soup I’ve ever had. Chef Riley told us that he doesn’t use thickeners; rather, he extracts the water from the mushrooms and uses them to thicken the bisque. A light touch with the salt further lets the mushrooms shine. The soup is topped with pomegranate and a swirl of chestnut crema that provided a touch of sweetness.
Biscuits ($8) are a mainstay at Mesa Provisions and it’s easy to see (and taste) why. The two pieces, hot from the oven and armored with a crisp shell, fell apart easily, providing more surface area for the red chile honey butter smeared on the side of the bowl. These biscuits were simply in a class by themselves.
Apple Salad ($14), one of two salads on the menu, is made up of chunks of apples and pieces of bacon over a bed of shaved fennel. A variation of pimento cheese made with aged Gouda cheese and red chile was streaked across two sides of the bowl. The mix offered an intriguing mix of smoke and citrus. It comes with fried shallot rings, crisp and not greasy.
The Cheese Plate ($19) was comprised mostly of the usual suspects like olives and prosciutto served on a black board. Paper-thin slices of pickled radishes and thick pieces of spicy chorizo sausage stood out, along with cheeses from Wisconsin and Utah. Pile as much as you can on the excellent salt and pepper crackers.
Chef Riley’s trout dishes were a highlight at Farm and Table, so it’s no surprise to find one on the menu at Mesa Provisions. For winter, chef Riley tops the Trout ($30) with diced root vegetables in a silky, lemon-yellow saffron sauce. The accompanying scoop of pesto is made with arugula instead of basil and pistachio instead of pine nuts – an environmentally sensitive choice, as pine nuts have been overharvested. The pesto was peppery and nutty, the fish moist, and the addition of grapefruit added some welcome acid. The sauce, lovely as it looked, was kind of inert. It needed something to make it pop.
Hearty and filling, the Lamb Ragu ($29) was a good choice for a winter’s night. Cubes of slow-cooked lamb were interspersed with hand-wrapped tubes of ridged pasta called garganelli. Mixed together, the scoop of lemon ricotta on top and the vivid green base of mint oil lifted the meaty sauce to another level. The pieces of lamb were a mixed bag, though, with some cooked tender, others still tough.
The creativity continued with the dessert menu, where the savory and the spicy are as valued as the sweet.
In the Green Chile Mousse ($9), sweetness was muted in both the mousse and the crunchy pieces of cardamom meringue that rose out of the bowl in a vaguely pyramidal form. Beneath it was a sauce that was the essence of green chile apple pie.
Camote Enmielado ($9) is Spanish for candied sweet potatoes, but the bowl we got was considerably more complicated than that. Yes, thick slices of stewed sweet potato were there, but so were coconut foam, blackberries and pecans. The foam carried an intense flavor of fresh coconut. Again, the sweetness was muted, except for the delicious sauce at the bottom of the bowl that tasted like the syrup that pools under a pecan pie.
The drinks menu has local beers on tap and in bottles and cans. Wines, ranging from $12 to $16 by the glass, and $44 to $88 for bottles, are mostly European. Nonalcoholic beverages include sodas and a terrific Pomegranate Spritzer ($7) with the right balance of bubbles and sweetness.
Most of the dishes are either gluten-free or can be adapted that way.
Service was outstanding. Our server knew the menu well and checked in on us often, even as the space filled up. Chef Riley himself was an active presence in the dining room, bringing out dishes and patiently describing the components of the dish.
With Mesa Provisions, Steve Riley has shown that he is ready for the spotlight. His restaurant offers inventive cuisine, thoughtfully sourced ingredients and, above all, a staff that is truly invested in the place. No wonder that, in only a year and a half, it has vaulted into the ranks of best restaurants in the city. I look forward to seeing what the future holds.