[UPDATE: The Westport location has closed. You can find Oaxaca in New Haven] “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 isa 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.