A Tale of Two Countries

At Mesob, the Caribbean and the Horn of Africa share the spotlight.



Snapper boukannen

   There are approximately 7,246 miles between Haiti and Eritrea. The significant distance — and difference in cuisine — is no consequence to Midtown’s Mesob Restaurant, which separates traditional dishes from both countries by mere inches on its menu.

   Mesob — located at 3600 Broadway, with its unassuming sign in an unassuming strip mall — is the second restaurant from Haitian-born chef Cherven Desauguste and his Eritrean-born business partner, Mehret Tesfamariam. Their first restaurant, Mesob Pikliz, located on Independence Avenue, closed in 2014, but the concept was much the same: an even split of dishes paying homage to each of the partners’ home countries.

Mehret Tesfamariam Cherven Desauguste Mesob restaurant Kansas City

Owners Mehret Tesfamariam and Cherven Desauguste

 

   “It’s not fusion,” Desauguste is quick to tell me one weeknight when I stop in to his restaurant. “We’re not combining the flavors from one culture with the other. We want people to come in and enjoy the authentic flavors of each region.”

   Since Kansas City itself is located some distance from the Caribbean or the Horn of Africa, it’s very likely that the majority of Mesob’s guests will be unable to judge off hand the authenticity of either flavors Desauguste is referring to. Most of the menu is full of dishes uncommon by Midwest standards: fritters made with taro root, a grilled whole snapper fish, entrees plated with miles of injera bread. Most dishes are listed first in their native language. The idea, it seems, is that if you are not familiar, you should at least be adventurous.

   The adventure starts with the appetizers. Caribbean fritters ($7) are made with fresh grated taro root — a potato-like vegetable, though slightly sweeter and nuttier — packed with fresh basil and thyme and pan-fried. Two hockey puck-sized fritters are served piping hot on a plate with a cool cilantro sauce. They are every bit as crave-able as the banane pesée ($6) — Haitian fried plantains, sliced into thick, toothsome chips and served with a psychedelically spicy slaw.

   There’s another app simply called Cherven Signature ($9). While the idea of four blackened tiger shrimp served with a mango-chili chutney doesn’t sound especially innovative, it is easy to understand why Desauguste considers it a signature dish. One of his primary talents seems to lie in marrying heavy spices with tropical notes, and his shrimp are a delight.

Mesob restaurant Kansas City

Cherven Signature, Banane pasee and Carribean fritters

 

   Fans of fried calamari will fall in love with a new appetizer, fried conch ($9). Conch meat is commonly enjoyed in both raw and cooked forms through the Caribbean, but is something of a rare delicacy in our neck of the woods. Desauguste breads and fries popcorn-sized bites of conch, and the basket lasted only briefly on our table. The flavor is mild and lightly sweet, and the texture is delicate — not chewy, not fishy.

   Both front- and back-of-house staff at Mesob is small, so guests at Mesob should come armed with patience. There is an implicit understanding that the stretch of time between appetizers and entrees should be spent drinking and not stealing glances at a clock.  

   Speaking of drinking: The selection of libations at Mesob is not as extensive as the food menu, though there are a few interesting imported Caribbean beers. The cocktail list smacks of island life, with tiki classics like the Painkiller ($6) and a rum punch ($6). What you shouldn’t skip is the house-made Kremas — a sweet cream liqueur that drinks a bit like a coconut-rum version of eggnog. (Interested parties and fans can buy the stuff by the bottle for $25 on the Mesob website.)

   There is much fanfare surrounding our entrees when they arrive, and they do deserve it. Almost all of the Eritrean entrees — which, for ease of geographical reference, are largely referred to at Mesob as Ethiopian entrees — feature injera. Injera is one of the most recognizable staples of Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine: It is a sourdough flatbread, traditionally made out of teff flour.

   At Mesob, the injera is spongey — almost sea creature-like, with a vaguely wet texture. It takes up the entire span of the plate, and the proteins and sides that you have ordered are arranged carefully on top of it. The flavor is mellow and a little sweet, but you’re not really meant to eat injera on its own. Eritreans and Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hands, tearing off pieces of injera and using the bread to pick up the main part of their meal. Everything is eaten between the fingers, not off the end of a fork, and at Mesob, guests are encouraged to do the same.

   In our case, classic Eritrea meant shekla beg tibs ($16). “Tibs” refers to the preparation — it’s marinated and sauteed pieces of meat, similar in some ways to what you’d get if you ordered fajitas at a Mexican joint. You may have shekla zilzil tibs (strips of beef); doro tibs (cubed chicken breast); ingudai tibs (portobello mushroom); shrimp tibs; or shekla beg tibs — lamb — at Mesob. The lamb is liberally seasoned — I detect garlic in one bite, cloves and coriander in the next — and gamey without being overwhelming.

Shekla beg tibs Mesob restaurant Kansas City

shekla beg tibs

 

   The qwanta firfir ($16) is likewise served on injera bread, and the traditional recipe calls for the firfir — dried beef, similar to jerky — to be diced and mixed in with tomatoes, berbere seasoning (that heady mix of dried herbs and chilies I detected in the beg tibs), and another portion of injera. The result is a thick, reddish, bread-y stew. In Ethiopia, this dish is said to cure hangovers, and I can see why: The carb overload is enough to sop up whatever leftover liquor might be haunting your system.

  Though the flavors of the qwanta firfir were excellent, the protein-to-injera ratio was a little too weak for my tastes, and for perhaps the first time ever, I found myself thinking that this dish could benefit from perhaps a little less bread. I was very grateful for the two proud little white plops of ayib, Mesob’s homemade Ethiopian cheese, which — in addition to providing a cooling agent for the steroid-popping spices that could crop up in a mouthful — added a new texture.

   Each Ethiopian dish is served with a choice of two sides: collard greens, red lentils, yellow lentils, tikil gomen (potato cabbage), green beans, or a simple house salad. The collard greens here are as good as they are anywhere, and I could take or leave the tikil gomen, but you’ll want to sign up for the lentils. Red and yellow lentils cook similarly in that they both end up looking a bit like mushy porridge, but the natural flavors are excellent, and Tesfamariam allows them to shine.

   Mesob’s greatest successes, though, come in the Caribbean side of the menu. Desauguste has a certain flair for drama, something that traditional Haitian dishes lend themselves easily to. The snapper boukannen ($23) — boukannen being the Creole word for “roasted” or “grilled” — is one of the top-selling entrees at Mesob, I am told, and after tasting it, I understand why. The presentation is arresting: The snapper is presented whole — bones, head, eyeball and even tiny, sharp teeth — after it has been marinated in butter, lemon and fresh thyme and grilled to perfection. After politely removing sections of the fish with a fork and knife, the snapper quickly became finger food. It was hot and melted sumptuously on the tip of the tongue, and we were determined not to let any of it go to waste.

Jerk chicken Mesob restaurant Kansas City

Jerk chicken

 

   The jerk chicken ($19) is perhaps one of the Caribbean’s most familiar recipes, and Mesob does it justice. A half chicken is marinated with fresh cloves, thyme, jalapeños, scallions, bell peppers, cinnamon and nutmeg, and these are the same ingredients for the thick jerk sauce, which appears on the plate in a flourishing swoop and also covers the chicken, which is somehow both charred and tender.

   That sauce can be a little overwhelming, its profile twisting abruptly between spicy and smoky and uncommonly sweet, but on the whole, Mesob’s jerk chicken is an excellent gateway drug into the rich world of Caribbean flavors. And as much as I would argue that sides on such a dish are not really necessary, the grilled slices of sweet plantains were appreciated. This is the type of dish you don’t mind wearing a bib for — and if we’re being honest, you probably should.

   There were several other tempting Caribbean dishes that my group found alluring: Our eyes lingered over the descriptions for the classic cabrit en sauce (braised goat marinated in a savory stew), the seared oxtail with red wine sauce, a pan-roasted rainbow trout with grilled peaches, and something called “drunken seafood pasta.” But we opted for the evening’s special — a bacon-wrapped, lobster-stuffed salmon ($18) — because you can’t hear something like that and not order it.

   The salmon proved to be one of those lessons in things sounding too good to be true. While there is no faulting Desauguste’s technique — engastration is terribly difficult to pull off, and his bacon-salmon-lobster was truly beautiful to behold, the elements cooked expertly — the flavors fell a little flat. The salmon overpowered the lobster entirely, which was a shame. Shout out to the wonderful grilled asparagus that was resting beneath that glorious surf-and-turf Frankenstein.

   Desauguste says that the Caribbean is defined by its boldness — flavors, aromas, colors. Fresh herbs for the Caribbean dishes, dried herbs for the Ethiopian dishes. Mesob certainly seems bold, from the unlikeliness of its location to the decor. The second iteration has been open since June 2016, following a long renovation period. There are a few tropical accents and plants, and some heavy mirrors hang in the hallway en route to the bathrooms, but Desauguste and Tesfamariam did not go all-in for an expensive remodel. The vibe is hard to place: The lighting is a little bright for dinner, and the white tablecloths seem oddly formal next to the bright, friendly green walls. The message, it seems, is that guests should focus on the food and not necessarily anything else; fortunately, Mesob’s dishes make that easy.

   In addition to big, loud flavors, Caribbean cuisine is also marked in part by its French colonial history, which would explain the absolutely perfect creme brulee ($6) on Desauguste’s dessert menu. It’s flavored with a whisper of tequila, and though the idea is nice, when the recipe is accomplished as deftly as Desauguste manages, it hardly needs a twist.

Mesob restaurant Kansas City

Red velvet pineapple upside-down cake, chocolate bread pudding

 

   I was not particularly optimistic about the idea of a red velvet pineapple upside-down cake ($6), and the first bite I had showed me just how wrong I can be. Still, the true star of the dessert round came in the form of a chocolate bread pudding ($7).

   I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly Haitian or Ethiopian about an Oreo-stuffed bread pudding drenched in more of Mesob’s Kremas and served with ice cream, but there is no denying the harmony these elements achieve here. All of Desauguste’s plates tend to look artful and tightly composed, but the bread pudding is such a temper tantrum of sugar bombs that there is simply no containing the joy on the plate — or on the faces of anyone enjoying it. Boldness, indeed.

   3600 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 721-9060, mesobkc.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 3 p.m. to close.