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Mesquite Chop Shop heats things up at the former Sleep Out Louie's location downtown

Mesquite Chop House was opened last year by restaurateurs Preston Lamm and James LoSapio — along with chef Eric McElroy — in the former Sleep Out Louie's on Union Ave. Except for the layout, you would never recognize the place. The restaurant features a warm and masculine décor, attractively upholstered booths with elegant dark wood finishes, good lighting, and well-chosen paintings and photographs. The former patio is now enclosed as a separate dining room, where a handsome stacked stone fireplace separates a private dining area from the rest of the tables. The downtown location is the area's second Mesquite Chop House. The original continues to operate at 5960 Getwell in Southaven for dinner only. >>>

Our first visit to the downtown Mesquite Chop House was for dinner, where we started with a pair of appetizers. We loved the beautifully smoky and tender mesquite-grilled quail, served with a subtle glaze and delectable, light fried tobacco onions. The Cajun prime rib pizza featured two house specialties, the savory house-smoked prime rib and the sumptuous spinach crema, and was substantial enough for four people. However, it was too busy and overly cheesed, the fried tortilla crust crisp but somehow not very satisfying. Appetizer portions of the scallops and duck breast were available, as well as house-smoked salmon and other tempting choices.

For entrees we put the kitchen to the test by ordering a filet cooked Pittsburgh rare, i.e., charred on the outside, rare in the middle. Our waiter knew all about this method of preparation, and the steak came out perfectly, with the interior a consistent, juicy deep pink, the exterior charred but not to the point of bitterness. The meat was fork tender but not mushy. The ribeye was cooked to a perfect medium rare as ordered, and was tender, juicy, and delicious. Bone-in cuts of tenderloin, Kansas City strip steak, and ribeye were also on the menu, as well as five different stuffed steaks. The fillings include blue cheese, crab, and crawfish. In addition to these options, a menu of sauces and flavored butters is available, too.

We also tried the delectable green-apple-stuffed pork chop. The double bone-in chop was cooked a tender medium rare to our order, stuffed with apples and blue cheese, and then topped with cracked black pepper cognac sauce. Also wonderful were the huge scallops, flawlessly cooked and served on the half shell with diced bacon and a roasted garlic butter that enhanced without taking over. Side dishes included a ho-hum cabernet rice medley, a satisfying and cheddar-blanketed version of scalloped potatoes, and the restaurant's delectable spinach crema, with fresh baby leaves peeking out from the slightly smoky cream sauce. We ended the meal with Mesquite Chophouse's fine six-layer carrot cake, probably the best I've ever tasted, with its many layers of butter cream. And it was huge: Four people shared it handily.

Our server that night added to our experience, as he was thoroughly knowledgeable about steak, the menu, and the wines. He shared a fine spirit of fun about all of it. The details were admirably taken care of, as well as things like making sure our orders got to the kitchen ahead of those from a large table. A single rose was presented to each of the women at the table, a gesture that was charming but also felt a little weird.

Lunch, I'm sorry to say, was less satis-factory. We ordered the ribeye sandwich, which consisted of tough, leather-tasting meat on an unchewably tough hoagie roll with standard horseradish sauce. I had heard the burgers were good, so I tried the triple-cheese bacon burger, served on a fresh challah roll. The burger was meaty and lean, but well-done despite my ordering it medium. At least these glitches were partially redeemed by the airy tobacco fries garnish and the fresh-from-the-cooker steak fries, which were worth the brief wait. They were crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. A more successful lunch entrée was the smoked duck salad, tenderly grilled and pink in the middle, full of subtle smoky, charred flavors and served on mixed greens with crisp wonton strips, and, oddly, grilled orange sections. The creamy raspberry vinaigrette was reminiscent of melted raspberry sherbet, and didn't really add much to the combination.

The service at lunch was stop-and-go and quite mixed. For example, the ritual of assembling oil, vinegar, and fresh pepper for dipping bread was meticulously done, and the to-go order we requested was well timed. But the meal itself lasted longer than an hour, despite the fact the waiter skipped coffee and dessert, bringing our check without asking if we wanted those things. Somehow, the server never seemed to be there when we needed something.

Mesquite Chop House is an attractive place, where the steaks are indeed excellent and the kitchen uses the smoker and the grill to great effect. There's the old saw about not ordering seafood or poultry at a steakhouse, but actually the scallops, the quail, and smoked duck breast were among the best things we had. Dinner is definitely the time to eat there. We found the service at dinner to be attentive and competent, the server informative and witty. Most of the food we had was well-prepared.

Unfortunately, lunch just didn't measure up, and in fact, we could hardly believe we were in a restaurant specializing in meat, given the poor quality of the ribeye sandwich and the overcooked hamburger. At least one of our dishes, the smoked duck salad, was worthy.

But wait until dark, and you'll find Mesquite Chop House hits its stride. M

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