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Sunday
Mar182012

From Masala to Mole: Westport's Oaxaca Kitchen

 

“From Masala to Mole” is Chef Prasad Chirnomula’s recent gourmet battle cry. The man who revolutionized Indian cuisine in Connecticut with Thali, opens his newest Mexican-inspired concept in Westport in the form of the lively south of the border hot spot that is Oaxaca Kitchen.

Leaving the Indian subcontinent, Chef Chirnomula has fully embraced the flavors of Mexico’s Oacaxa region, an area known for its mole dishes, barbacoa, mezcal and chocolate. The layers of flavors and spice found in Oaxacan dishes, a region often referred to as “land of the seven moles,” evokes a similar feel to the masalas and bright yet rich flavors found in Chef Chirnomula's native Indian cuisine. 

The menu at Oaxaca Kitchen embraces both the flavors of Oaxaca region as well as the entire scope of Mexican cuisine with several Chirnomula flourishes thrown in to the mix. This Mexican deep-dive doesn't just stop at the savory. Flip over your menu or just look up at the wall lined with tequila bottles to glean Oaxaca Kitchen's devotion to agave.   

Starters come in the form of seven types of tacos including Oaxaca’s signature meat-centric Barbacoa, a hangar steak cooked with avocado and maguey leaves. Just like Chirnomula’s Barbaco taco, the remainder of the tacos begin with protein staples and end with a signature flourish in the form of arugula and creme fraîche finishes. Starting in Oaxaca, but ending in Chirnomula. 

 

The Chipotlesque taco is a chicken swathed in adobe sauce, a unmistakable smoky sauce made from ground chilies, vinegar and herbs and spices. A solid choice. And the Patron de Baha taco is a tequila tempura battered red snapper served with salsa ranchero. The flavors are there, but the execution was uneven on the last visit. To round out the taco excursion, I was intrigued by the Panceta, a slow-cooked pork belly with shallots, bay leaves and fennel. Not quite Mexican, definitely not Indian, but richly heavy and memorable nontheless.

Another nod to the masses and our guacamole-loving selves is a section devoted entirely to the stuff. Five guacamoles beckon, often served in the Mocajete, the mexican version of a mortar and pestle. This is my benchmark at any Mexican-inspired joint. At Oaxaca, it is studded with bits of radish and pico de gallo with the guacamole rich with chunks of avocado and thankfully not mashed into a lifeless mass. On the visits I’ve made, in addition to working through the guacamole, I also tend to gravitate to the ceviche veracruz, a citrus poached lovely mess of shrimp, scallop, green olive, avocado, topped with a tomato lime sorbet. A nice respite from the grilled and savory meats that fill the rest of the starters. The ceviche has this palate cleansing appeal but can also stand on its own.

The starters and guacamole paired with an entire back-side devoted to “adult refreshments” would be a fine reason to cross the Oaxaca threshold, but a hearty list of entrées boasting shrimp, chorizo, hangar steak, duck breast and chicken also beckon. But before we venture, it should be noted that the strength of Oaxaca Kitchen is in this informal pairing of starters and tequilas. Like the initial iteration of Thali Westport, this small plate focus on the left-hand side of the menu savored with a shot of tequila or mezcal, is the more nuanced and rewarding of the experiences to be had.

During my most recent foray into Oaxaca's entrées, I was tempted (read: bullied by my craving for a burger) by their version of the burger and fries. Chirnomula’s interpretation of this American dish through the lens of Mexico is the Bufalo Chorizo Hamberguesa, a ground meat patty with both buffalo and chorizo meat paired with queso chihuahua and guacamole. The twice-fried chili fries were a hefty and comforting accompaniement. The smoky and crumbly burger paired with the creamy avocado and cheese is a fine interpretation. It may not sate true, beefy burger craving, but it comes close.

But if you’re going to start anywhere as a diner, it should probably be at Oaxaca’s signature dish, the Mole Rojo.  This traditional chocolate chile red mole sauce is paired with sweet potato. Another entree to consider is the hangar steak, or the Bistec ala Parrila, a marinated steak served with Oaxaca black bean sauce, sweet corn, sweet potato and jalapeno pan jus or the traditional Barbacoa de Res, a hangar steak cooked and served in parchment with avocado and maguey leaves. These more traditional dishes are surely the strongest on this side of the menu.

Finally, the Cameron al Ajillo Y Mezcal is a dish that sounds much crazier than it tastes. Sauteed shrimp served in a charred tomato couli with garlic, finished with a flourish of hoja santa (a Mexican aromatic herb) infused oil may easily become a staple, the shrimp organized around a central mound of blue corn rice. That rice making is one of the more rewarding yet simple sides to be had.

One of the few misses, would be the Chilies Rellenos. The poblano pepper with baby spinach, sweet corn and queso fresco, is served with a charred tomato coulis has so much potential. It could work in theory, but it was less lively than I know it could be. 

Although it’s still early and Oaxaca Kitchen is still finding its rythym in terms of service and dialing in certain dishes, the menu is solid and easily fills Westport’s role in the burgeoning upscale-Mexican trend in a county that already has Bodega and Mesa in Fairfield, Red Lulu in Sono, Cactus Rose in Wilton and Lolita Cocina in Greenwich. Beyond the food, the atmosphere is a clear boon. It grooves longer and later than its predecessors or any of its neighbors, with a bar scene that is ready, willing and able to entertain.

Oaxaca Kitchen is located at 376 Post Rd E in Westport, CT in the Traders Joes shopping plaza. More information visit www.oaxacakitchen.com.

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Reader Comments (15)

Well now I have to question the credibility & tastes of Ct. Bites readers who write reviews for restaurants. My husband & I went to Oaxaca with our friends a couple of weeks ago & we found the food to be awful. To put it in perspective, we sent our drinks back! It seemed like they were from a mix...my kids could have mixed something better. The food had absolutely no flavor & the service was terrible.
I will be surprised if they last longer than his previous place Thali. Now that I think of it, why did he close? Maybe the food was as bad!

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLJS

After having eaten at this Oaxaca Kitchen 4 times, and at the other location in New Haven at least a half dozen times, I have to say tha both CTBites and the above unnamed critic are in error.

Unlike the Connecticut thoroubreds who cruise the Post Road looking for the next THING, I grew up in El Paso, Oklahoma and San Francisco and have an unquenchable appetite for Mexican food. I have a Mexican Aunt and numerous Hispanic cousins, have driven from Kansas City to Guatemala City through the entire length of Mexico, had breakfast on the Atlantic side and driven to have dinner the same day on the Paciific Coast and can truthfully say, I have never tasted better Mexican food than that served at Oaxaca Kitchen.

Apart from knowing Mexican food, by way of bragging about my own worldview, blah, blah, blah, I have lived in Shanghai, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Nice, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Helena and Bedford and I can also truthfully say i know FOOD and I know wine. I spent my fortieth birthday dining in Puligny Montrachet and I've lived IN America, that bizarre place on the other side of the Hudson, have had bad Mexican food at Taco Bell in San Diego and great Mexican food in tiny places from the middle of the Ozarks to Northern Minnesota.

Oaxaca Kitchen is incomparable.

There is no other place like it and to compare it to Bodega or Red Lulu is ludicrous. Red Lulu is for 20 year olds who need the excuse of food to hook up and Bodega is a cynical attempt to be NOW,. Chef Chirnomula lived in Oaxaca for 6 weeks, went to cooking classes and carefully studied the spicing, the techniques and the spirit of Oaxacan cuisine and its seven Moles and has come up with something quite different and totally unknown in America, The couple and their friends would probably have been a lot happier eating the tex mex slop they know, and that's what they were probably expecting, a chalupa and a side of refried Frijoles. That isnt Oaxaca Kitchen.

I have sent any number of people to OK strongly recommending the Chilies Relleno that the reviewer found lacking... as the single most innovative Mexican dish EVER and everyone who's tried, agrees. Many dishes are divine,,,, I've even converted a few people who dine almost nightly at Chef Luis in New Canaan, the only serious competition, to give up LUIS's work in favor of OK...

Please, Go, try, but do NOT expect the food to be like any Mexican you are used to or have ever tasted. Oaxaca Kitchen may be the first and only place that makes the words "Gourmet Mexican" actually fit together and NOT prove oxymoronic.

Red Lulu indeed.

March 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergourmetguy

Gourmetguy has a good point in that Prasad Chirnomula has an utterly original approach to Mexican. Is the Westport Oaxaca on par with the New Haven? Any thoughts on this? Is the Westport one, having recently opened, still working out the kinks?
Of the other trendy Mex places to get tacos, I ate two utterly average tacos at Bodega yesterday and I understand gourmetguy's use of the word "cynical." I wouldn't mind paying $4 for a rather small taco if it had been really good. In contrast, the tacos I had a bartaco recently left me craving them for the next week. And I've never been disappointed at La Poblanita, for those of you willing to venture into Bridgeport to a place where Mexicans eat.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

LJS, if you read Amy's review carefully you would note that she did critique many of the dishes and say that there were things lacking or things that needed to be worked on. We were invited to the opening party of Oaxaca Kitchen and had some of the dishes that Amy is talking about here. Some of them were great, and some were decent. We think she's got it right. One of the dishes that we had was bland: it was a stuffed jalapeƱo, but some other dishes were lively and full of bright flavors. We do, of course, need to sit down to a nice meal here because you can't judge over passed apps before a restaurant even opens, but it was a pretty good indicator for us.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOmNomCT

Oh, and an add on to the previous comment to LJS, Thali in Westport was amazing. A tapas style approach to Indian food. Really, just an amazing spot. Some of the best Indian food that we've ever had was there and at his spot in New Canaan.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOmNomCT

If the food was so good then he wouldn't hae had to change the place fom a ''tapas style'' Indian to another ''trendy'' Mexican place.

And B.T.W. this place won't last on the Post Road in Westport either

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPD Chef

@PD Chef-Have you actually looked in there on any weekend night? It is packed to capacity. I wouldn't be so quick to nay say here. Oaxaca is already a huge success.

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizzy

I wish people would use their names to post - I still can't decide if "gourmetguy" is a spoof or not. I think Amy wrote a very good and balanced review.

The food was okay on my one trip (I have great admiration for Prasad and the interest in the commonality between - especially the spices of - Indian food and Mexican food), but it didn't blow me away. It may be some of the most creative Mex food IN THE AREA, but seriously, it isn't Ortega's (San Diego) or Red Iguana (SLC). And anyone who has had a Korean taco knows that there is creative Mex-fusion out there already.

My concern (and I have no desire to needlessly slag a place for one bad night - but at least I comment under my own name) is that the service was some of the worst I've ever experienced in a restaurant: two servers arguing about who has the table - right in front of the table; first ap out before the drinks and prepared wrong; second ap never came and the server blew me off when I asked about it - then avoided the table, so we went a half-hour with NOTHING on the table, no water, no checking about drink refills/reorders, nothing; I had to all but tackle the manager, who got the mains out in 15 more minutes. Now, again, anybody can have a bad night, but this was my money being spent on their bad night.

Thali New Canaan, for a time, was one of my ever-evolving "best three restaurants in Fairfield County." That Thali Westport couldn't sustain a following probably most speaks to the location, not the food. As I commented on CTBites at the time of the switch to vegetarian, it was a misguided move because much of the crowd was already coming for vegetarian fare. With this switch, the location isn't any better. I'll order take-out one day and, if the food seems better than Meh-xican, I might try it again. But at this point, call me a skeptic.

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

A callout to "gourmetguy".
If Oaxaca is not a favorite of yours, what are your top 3 Mexican destinations within 15 minutes of Fairfield/Westport.

I haven't been to Oaxaca yet, but did plan on trying. But I am interested in what you consider much better in the immediate area.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfoleyd7

Been to both the NH and Westport Oaxacas (Oaxaci?) and could not believe the difference between them.

The New Haven resturant was VERY good with impressive, innovative food served in a nice setting. The Westport one was significantly inferior in my opinion, with a worse environment, far inferior table service, worse margaritas, different (more basic and less tasty) salsa and food that was boring and frankly not terribly good.

To think that both of these restaurants are "the same" is perplexing as I found them dissimilar in every way except the name. I'd literally drive past the Westport resturant to go to the NH one if I wanted to dine at a Oaxaca.

Given the range in opinions on this place, I can only assume they are having some major growing pains that manifest as inconsistency. This is surprising for a chef/restauranteur as experienced as Prasad Chirnomula.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShamas

Awful food, i think Oaxaca buys all their food frozen and then just reheats it.
@foleyd7 Bodega taco bar in Fairfield, Red lulu Sono, hell an Taco bell has better taste.

over/under Oaxaca goes under by the fall

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPTC

I used to go to Thali at least 3 times a month.

Then they became.....dare I say it....VEGETARIAN! AAAARRRRRRGH!

As in...no meat. I used to sometimes go there for the dosa and I would LAUGH at them for going veggie. I used to heckle them that it would never work around here. So I was psyched when they decided to go Mex....until I saw the menu. These guys make the kind of Mex food you never had in your life and never wanted to....heavy on the seafood, and not a damn enchilada in sight, and everythings over twenty bucks.

And I really want to know this and I am not being a jerk, but how come there are SO MANY Mexican people around here and there is ZERO good Tex-Mex food?

Anyone remeber Pancho's on Main? Now that was some chow...

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymouse

As a follow-up to my prior posts...

We did return and eat in once. The food was good and the service was better.

But tonight, I used the website to place a take-out order, showed up and the designated time, and my order was still sitting on the printer by the cash register. After looking sheepishly, the person who had come to the register blamed the ordering system and seemed to suggest that there was a second way to place on-line orders that was more reliable.

I ORDERED OFF OF THE OAXACA WEBSITE. If that isn't reliable, whose fault is that?

He kinda of half-heartedly suggested be could put the order in then.

Seriously, like the manager on my first visit, this was taking "useless" to a new level. Like a lox.

I'm not sure how many opportunities one should give a restaurant that serves pretty good food, but this was just about the worst service I have received in a restaurant AND the worst take-out service it is possible to receive.

It's so insulting to customers, that I will never go back to Thali, either. Give me mediocre food from a place that respects customers over this nonsense, any day.

August 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

Reports are that Oaxaca Kitchen in Westport has closed. While I am sorry, in that I am a believer in Prasad's food, my experiences at the restaurant leave me completely unsurprised.

April 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

I used to be a believer in Prasad's INDIAN food, with which he had a more-than-passing familiarity, going as I had at least once a week until the dark day they closed Thali Westport.

I will be very frank...I never went back after the re-open. Reading the menu never tempted me.

I will say this as well and let the chips fall...With few exceptions Westport is not now and has never really been a "restaurant town". Exceptions now are the whelk and Pane Bene, and exceptions then were places like Sakura (which is quite good) and Mario's (which is Godawful in my humble estimation) but in general Westporters haven't traditionally shelled out to eat out.

It must also be mentioned that what some would call land values but I prefer to refer to as landlords have been, and do, squeeze the LIFE out of towns like Westport. Why rent to some guy withy a grill when you can rent to Talbots or Benneton (see how dated I am? Do those places even exist?)

April 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

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