I s guacamole-making an art? And if it’s created tableside in a molcajete, does it qualify as performance art? At Oaxaca Kitchen, the answer is yes to both, and it isn’t the only art to be found. Deep flavor, soulful textures, imagination and composition is everywhere—on the walls, in the dining room and bar, on the menu, in the kitchen, on the plates.
Imagine, if you will, a plump dollop of lump blue crab meat textured and tinted by ground blue corn, perched in a shallow pool of charred tomato coulis and topped with a spiky little crown of mango papaya relish… or a charbroiled duck breast, sliced and glistening against a wash of pistachio mole, served in a porcelain bowl shaped like a giant eye… or seared scallops in a vivid pumpkin mole verde studded with blistered baby tomatoes. Forget everything you think you know about Mexican cookery. In the gifted hands of Chef Prasad Chirnomula, of New Haven’s Thali restaurants, this famously casual fare plays out like fine dining.
Prasad, a James Beard honoree, has long been fascinated by authentic Mexican cooking and its flavor profiles. It was in 2010 that he took two life-changing trips to the state of Oaxaca, on Mexico’s southwestern Pacific coast. There he studied with accomplished local chefs, visiting markets and prepping and cooking alongside them in restaurant kitchens. His vision for an eatery serving “haute Mexican cuisine” gelled on a subsequent trip to Santa Fe, where he was inspired by masterful Southwestern eateries.
The resulting menu, unveiled at Oaxaca Kitchen’s opening in April of 2011, is intense and rather small, with only 23 dishes—including three desserts—bearing complicated Spanish names like “Jitomates Ahumados y Gazpacho con Albahaca.” This, my friends, is gazpacho, but bears no resemblance to that chilly cup of red soup we’ve come to know. Here, diners are each presented with a large, shallow bowl containing an intriguing assemblage of ingredients, including toasted pepitas, tomato-avocado tartar, jalapeno oil and red pepper sorbet. Then, servers approach with decanters of the tomato-based broth and proceed to pour it into each bowl, effectively drowning the assemblage and creating the freshest soup you’ve ever had. The result is not only great drama—our party of four oohed and aahed as if we were at a fireworks show—but also allowed every flavor to stand on its own. We all agreed that the sorbet was a bit too sweet and therefore distracting, and still it was a smash-hit, “don’t-miss,” invite-the-out-of-towners sort of dish.
Prasad’s cookery is matched by Oaxaca’s atmosphere, created by designer/fabricator Welcome Bienvenue, who is also responsible for the wonderful pattern-on-pattern environment of New Haven’s Thali Too. “I feel like I’m in a dark, holy place, an ancient church,” said my sister Cynthia—who also said that the aforementioned guacamole was so good that she wanted to grab the stone bowl and run all the way home with it, still filled with guacamole. (“Thanks for the heroin,” she wrote in her tasting notes.) Oaxaca is located in the former Caffe Adulus on College Street, with a lounge and bar in the front half of the space, both feeling as if they’ve been there since Davy Crockett defended the Alamo. The dining room proper is on an upper level, reached via a half-landing of slate steps. Welcome’s design integrates rustic touches like cow hides and hand-painted crosses with unusual surfaces—a wall in the dining room, for instance, is covered with terra-cotta tequila jars embedded in what looks like concrete. (They resemble giant, human nipples—what’s he trying to say?)
Nearly everything we tasted was outstanding, including the oversized Oaxaca Margarita, which Cara compared to a Tilt-A-Whirl. The only disappointment—besides the too-sweet sorbet in both the gazpacho and the pretty Ceviche Veracruz—was Pozole de Puerco, a simmered dish in which the featured cubes of pork were tough and not fully infused with the bay leaf/thyme au jus. But that mistake was forgotten when the desserts arrived: a lovely flan with a long, light cookie, frosted to spell out OAXACA; and, the star of the show, an outrageously delicious Sopapilla Cheesecake served with avocado-pecan ice cream. This was a revelation to all of us, even those of us who aren’t crazy for desserts (that would be me). Sopapilla is a puff pastry common in other parts of the country (it’s the official State Pastry of Texas), which in this dish formed the crust of a near-criminally creamy cheesecake. Meanwhile, the avocado-pecan ice cream made me reconsider my position on ice cream in general: maybe I do scream for it, after all.
Oaxaca is a wonderful addition to the downtown dining scene, and a great place to cozy up to the bar for a bite of this and that—there’s a buffalo burger, tacos, and vegetarian quesadillas on the menu—while sipping on a boutique tequila (there are many to choose from). The wine and beer lists are impressive, too, as are the fresh, artisanal cocktails. Prasad has done it again.
228 College Street, New Haven (map)
Lunch: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-2:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm, Sun 11am-2pm
Dinner: Mon-Thurs 11:30am-2:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm, Sun 11am-2pm
Bar (with “anytime” menu): Mon-Thurs 11:30am-12am, Fri-Sat 11:30am-1am, Sun 11am-12am
Written by Todd Lyon.