Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Blue corn pancake with barbecued duck from Mesa Grill. [Photos: Ben Fishner]

Mesa Grill is celebrity chef Bobby Flay's flagship, a fine dining spot serving gussied up Southwestern cuisine. But is it possible to dine affordably at one of Flay's restaurants? After having a hard time keeping to a budget at Flay's Bar Americain in Midtown, I decided to put Mesa to the Apps Only test. What we found was some delicious food that, if not cheap, was a much better value than its Midtown counterpart—and with better service, ambiance and decor to boot.

First, the bread basket, a longtime favorite: blue corn jalapeno corn muffins are one of the best alternatives to the dinner roll in town. The crispy rolls dusted with cornmeal are also very good. If you're sitting at the bar, you can munch on a ridiculously long breadstick--they're not crunchy, but pliant, with a cheesy, spicy kick.

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Mesa Grills' bread basket includes signature blue corn jalapeno corn muffins.

We started with the Rough Cut Tuna Nachos ($15), really a tuna tartare dish. The tuna, tossed in cilantro and pimenton, is served atop avocado crema and a sweet mango-habanero hot sauce. The portion was generous as far as tuna tartare goes, and the fish was fresh and delicious, not overpowered by the seasoning and condiments. The blue and flaky white corn chips served on the side made a perfect edible utensil, and made the dish a bit more filling.

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Rough Cut Tuna Nachos, a take on tuna tartare.

Next we had the Blue Corn Pancake ($14), a kind of quesadilla stuffed with barbecued duck and drizzled with habanero chile sauce. The succulent duck took on the texture of pulled pork and stole the show from the pancake. Meanwhile, the Goat Cheese "Queso Fundido" ($13) is a great dish to fill up on--melted jack and goat cheeses topped with strips of sweet roasted peppers and served with more blue corn chips. A classic bar food, here elevated to the fine dining realm without any sense of irony.

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Goat cheese queso fundido.

Unfortunately, the sides we sampled to round out our meal weren't as memorable as our appetizers. Brussels Sprouts ($7) were perfectly cooked and toasted pecans added a nice crunch, but the pomegranate sauce they were served in was almost treacle-like, tasting more like a Jolly Rancher than anything I want on my vegetables. When I saw the Pumpkin Tamale ($7) on the menu, I pictured a tamale filled with pumpkin flesh; instead, we got a tamale seasoned with traditional pumpkin pie spices. Again, flavors better suited to desert than dinner. There are a plethora of other options though, all $7, so you may have better results.

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Pumpkin tamale.

The three of us spent $66, or $22 each, well over our $15/person target price. Mesa Grill is not an inexpensive restaurant, but the dishes are fun, mostly delicious, and the service is helpful and genuinely friendly--no one batted an eye at our party ordering only from the appetizer and sides menus. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that Bobby Flay still actually runs restaurants—and who knows what his actual involvement level at Mesa is—but regardless, this is a restaurant still worth visiting.

Mesa Grill

102 5th Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map)
212-807-7400
mesagrill.com

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