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Mezcal: Modern twist on traditional Mexican food

Just as its namesake spirit — more than tequila — illustrates the depth and breadth of liquor derived from agave, a new Ashland restaurant highlights the nuances of traditional Mexican cuisine.

Mezcal distills its menu from specialties of Mexico’s Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacan and Puebla regions and reinterprets them with modern flair. Diners whose notion of Mexican food includes fajita platters, taco salads and nachos will encounter a sophisticated vision of the country’s gastronomy, courtesy of chef Bibian Charpenel, a native of Guadalajara.

Charpenel’s is the first globally inspired restaurant, since Hong Kong Bar closed almost a decade ago, to capitalize on the third-floor suite of the historical Masonic Lodge on Ashland’s Plaza. The balcony is arguably one of the best seats in town for dining al fresco, and Mezcal’s gourmet — but still festive — fare is a compelling invitation to seek out and ride the nondescript elevator from a walkway between the Plaza and Calle Guanajuato to the sleekly furnished space.

Like the décor, Mezcal’s plates don’t suffer the excesses of many local Mexican restaurants. No puddles of rice and beans smothered in sauces and cheese. Presentation is precise and purposeful, promising a taste as good as the dish looks.

A plate of broiled bones, for example, is a beige backdrop for vibrant color at Mezcal. Accented with cherry tomatoes, grilled corn kernels, lime wedges, avocado mousse and microgreens, the appetizer ($14) is easily the most eye-catching version of bone marrow I’ve eaten. Served with tortillas to construct tacos, the silky, rich and supremely savory marrow eclipses the appeal of tongue, tripe and other offal typical of Mexican cuisine and more recently popularized by chefs.

The clean flavors of ceviche can be had either stuffed into yellow chilies ($14) or crispy black bean tortillas ($7). I tried both variations and preferred the former’s delicacy and moderate heat as counterpoint to the mixture of halibut, mango, cucumber, onion and tomato, drizzled with a sweet-sour hibiscus sauce.

Hibiscus flowers are an intriguing component of a vegetarian taco with potatoes and carrots in a jicama tortilla. It’s one of five options, including roast duck, pulled pork, refried beans and roasted poblano chilies, for a build-your-own taco plate of three for $15.

From the fairly priced menu, Mezcal’s most expensive item is the “dualidad de moles” a duo of Oaxacan black and white sauces boasting more than 15 ingredients. Served with half a sous-vide Cornish hen or grilled cauliflower and tortillas, it’s priced at $28.

Doubting I could polish off the entire portion, I instead selected the tortilla soup ($12), contrary to the server’s recommendation of chicken enchiladas in a Guanajuato-style red sauce ($18). I also considered the traditional stuffed, roasted chile poblano relleno ($14), which is more accurately a chili-laced cheese omelet in the majority of Mexican restaurants locally.

The soup had chicken aplenty, arranged in the bowl with strips of fried tortilla, sliced red onion, diced avocado, queso fresco and dollops of sour cream. The tomato-pasilla chile broth was served on the side in a carafe for pouring into the bowl’s bottom, ensuring the tortillas remain crisp.

Throughout the meal, I sipped grapefruit-infused cocktails, first the Smoky Elder ($13) accented with St. Germaine, an elderflower liqueur that I’m hard-pressed to pass up. The Paloma ($12) swapped tequila for the Smoky Elder’s mezcal and, indeed, was much subtler. Mezcal typically affords a deep, smoky, more diverse flavor profile than its agave-sourced counterpart, tequila. But both faded to the background next to my friend’s Aguila ($13), a coconut-enhanced, mezcal-based cocktail with grilled pineapple juice.

House-made “aguas frescas” also provide an enticing option for those who appreciate horchata (Mezcal’s is sweetened with strawberries) and hibiscus with rosemary. There’s also a selection of Mexican sodas.

Desserts consisted of the Mexican staple flan ($8) and the unexpected: sweet squash cooked in earthy, unrefined loaf sugar and served very hot with a cup of whole milk ($9). Although I was intrigued by the latter, I had to satisfy my craving for cool, creamy custard. Mezcal sweetens the deal with mezcal-infused mandarin orange segments.

The flan wasn’t as sweet as I expected with a coarser texture, but that didn’t keep me from polishing it off. Next time I’d order another cocktail, or maybe strawberry horchata, alongside classic drinking food: cheese dip with chorizo or a corn fungus- and local mushroom-filled quesadilla.

Located at 23 N. Main St., Ashland, Mezcal is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, until midnight Thursday through Saturday. Call 541-708-0927.

Tune into Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Bone marrow appetizer at Ashland's Mezcal. Photo by Sarah Lemon