At this Iberian restaurant that specializes in abundance, the bill of fare hasn’t changed much over the years. Here you find Spanish and Portuguese classics — sopa de ajo, paella Valenciana, pork Alentejana with clams — served generously. Yes indeed, you will be well fed here. You will also be well fussed over, and it is likely the hospitality extended at this meson that accounts for its longevity. El Meson has its fans in this ‘hood. Many of them seemingly as old as the house itself, all treated with kindness by owner Jose Alves and his formally suited, professional waitstaff.
It stands out on this strip of small shops that lines Beechwood, this stately red brick house with wide white balconies and charming architectural detail. Its dining rooms — upstairs (for private engagements) and the main-level 46-seater — have the same solid, unfashionably old-world look. The floors are still carpeted, the white walls roughly stippled, the tables thickly napped. Walls are lined with oils and crockery.
There are no high wire acts on the menu. Indeed, I don’t believe the dishes have changed much in all the years I’ve known El Meson.
Here, still, is the house garlic soup. Here still, in February as in September, the chilled gazpacho, the herbed tomato salad. These were good 15 years ago, and they’re good now. Even better now, it seems to me, is the house green salad, so often dreary in places like this. The one I’m brought at lunch is more interesting, more flavourful, more fussed-over than I remember, and without the use of the ubiquitous box of tasteless baby greens.
If you start with the sharing plate of tapas you’ll find a pretty ordinary assembly of what-you’d-expect stuff plus a few treats — some chorizo, a few snappy shrimp, roasted peppers, breaded calamari, plus salt cod cakes, a tomato and artichoke salad drizzled with a garlic mayonnaise, a few turnip sticks, some rich soft cheese, a small bowl of bean salad. A table of four could easily share, although there wouldn’t be enough fish cakes to go around and that could spell trouble.
The idea of a chilled tomato soup in February doesn’t appeal much. But neither does the cream of asparagus soup du jour on offer. Nevertheless, I need a soup to write about, and the classic Spanish red one looks pretty good at the neighbouring table. I’m pleased I ordered it. I like the crunch and the scent of cumin in the chunky salsa garnish, the texture of the thickly pureed vegetables, the vinegar tang, the garlic pungency, the balanced seasoning.
Other than suffering from a bit too much salt, the paella Valenciana is well done. The seafood not overcooked, the chorizo sausage still moist, the soupy saffron rice bedded down with onion and garlic, peas and peppers, bits of it crunchy from contact with the edges of the paella pan. I liked too the rustic and generous shrimp casserole, deluged with peppers and onions and garlic.
If you aren’t in a fish mood, try the veal with mushrooms in a sherry sauce or the pork Alentejana with fresh clams. Duck was on offer one night, with olives and oranges, on a silky bed of parsnip puree, served with turned potatoes and snappy vegetables.
Vegetarians are paid a modicum of attention. They will happily make you a paella sans fish or meat, or a vegetable tortilla.
El Meson may be the only restaurant left in this city that still delivers tableside, its breadth of dessert options spread out on a platter. They look a bit defeated — the meringue without its sauce, the crema catalana without its bronzed sugar top. But pay no mind to the urge to pass them over. The fresh models that emerge from the kitchen, looking bright and pretty, caramelized or sauced, or both, are excellent. Nothing beats the house gateau Basque, with its buttery short crust, soft almond paste, and crunchy glazed top. (It goes very well with a double shot of well-drawn espresso). The piped meringue dessert, a cinnamon-dusted, orange-scented cousin of the Ile Flottante, is an impressive cannonball of egg whites in a pond of crème anglaise.
El Meson has an ample collection of Spanish and Portuguese wines, at many price points, and owner Alves is a first-rate guide.
This is not a temple of gastronomy, but rather a very agreeable place to spend an evening, without spending a lot of money.