Internationalist Cuisine in the Warehouse District
Mesón 923 opened recently at 923 S. Peters St. in a beautifully renovated building that dates from 1810. Astrid LaVenia, who owns the restaurant with Jerome Fertel, is responsible for the restaurant’s concept and overall design, which combines the 19th-century commercial architecture common to the Warehouse District with an interior design that’s far more modern. Charles Silbernagel, the architect of record, designed the structural elements and the exterior. LaVenia worked with Brooks Graham on the interior.
There is a modest-size dining room on the first floor, along with a bar and a “chef’s table” that looks into the semi-open kitchen. The second floor has a larger, more open dining area, and there’s a generous porch for outdoor dining. LaVenia told me that the restaurant’s location so near the river results in a near-constant breeze, meaning that even during the hotter months, eating outside will be an option.
The renovation took two years, but the results are impressive. Fortunately, the food I’ve had there so far is, too. Chef Chris Lynch, a former chef de cuisine at Emeril’s, is in charge of the kitchen. Baruch Rabasa serves as his executive sous chef. Lynch, who also spent time at August and Gautreau’s, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
The name Mesón translates as “inn” or “restaurant,” and there are Iberian influences to Lynch’s cooking, but I wouldn’t call Mesón 923 a Spanish restaurant by any means. The New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton recently used a term the term “Southern internationalist” to describe John Besh’s cooking at August. I’d drop the “Southern” and replace it with “refined” to describe Lynch’s menu.
There is a section of the menu labeled “Crudo” that’s devoted solely to raw seafood, including the hamachi I had as a starter recently, which was served with segments of blood orange, thinly sliced radishes, purslane, and cacahuates –– Mexican soy-coated peanuts –– that had been finely chopped. It was an outstanding dish in which the richness of the yellowtail was balanced with the acidity of the orange; the fish’s melting texture was complemented by the crisp radish and peanut. Purslane is not something you see very often; it’s a slightly fuzzy, crisp and sweet green, and it was the perfect slightly herbal note to complete the dish.
Other selections from that part of the menu include tuna carpaccio with pickled onion, fennel, lemon and grilled baguette; shrimp seviche with olives, cucumber, tomato and feta cheese; and oysters from the east and west coasts.
The wide-ranging nature of the cuisine is matched in some respects by Lynch’s willingness to source ingredients from outside of the local area. Those oysters, for example, and lobster, scallops, halibut, skate (from Maine) and the salmon (from Scotland) are all from beyond the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But Lynch also uses local products where appropriate; Gulf shrimp are served as an appetizer with serrano ham, melon, mint and pimentòn, and oysters provided by P&J are served with manchego cheese, grits, tomato, okra and tasso.
I don’t know where the pork belly in my second course came from, but I do know it was cooked right. The skin was crisp, much of the fat had been rendered, and the meat was tender enough to feed an infant. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. It was served over onion and citrus segments, Manila clams, and on top of a crisp sheet of what I think may have been taro adorned with sesame seeds. The clams were delicious and had been barely cooked so that they didn’t toughen up. It was another excellent dish.
My final choice was the aforementioned skate, served with jumbo lump crabmeat, baby vegetables, and a Noilly Prat nage. The dish was garnished with nasturtium flowers and grape tomatoes whose skins had been peeled but left attached at the very top. It was a neat effect, inviting me to pick them up and pop them in my mouth. The flowers were far more than a pretty addition, lending the dish a slightly spicy and tart flavor. Skate is one of my favorite fish, and again Lynch hit the sweet spot by cooking it so that the crisp exterior folded into a tender center. Skate can be overcooked, and it toughens up a bit (before falling apart if you really overdo it), but when it’s done right, it’s amazing. This was amazing.
I should mention that the restaurant brought out a complimentary dessert for me at the end of the meal. It was a sampling of the sorbets and gelato on offer. I’d already put my pen up, so I’m not entirely sure about what all of the six or seven selections were. I do have a distinct memory of the cucumber sorbet with bits of crunchy, sour and slightly spicy pickled cucumber studded within. I’m not sure it would work as a dessert on its own, but it would make a fantastic palate cleanser, and it was addictive. Other flavors included a chocolate-pecan gelato, mango-lime sorbet and another use of nasturtium in a gelato.
The restaurant opened at the start of April, and it probably has some growing pains to suffer through where service is concerned. The folks who served me were fine if a little hesitant about some of the dishes. All things considered, the entire experience was really nice.
Because they’re so new, you might just slip in by calling them at (504) 523-9200. Mesón 923 is open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.