Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven.
By STEPHANIE LYNESS
SINCE 2000, diners have come to know Prasad Chirnomula as the chef and owner of the innovative Thali Indian restaurants in New Canaan, Ridgefield and New Haven, as well as two casual, vegetarian eateries, called Thali Too, in New Haven and Westport. Last year, he turned his considerable energies to Mexican cuisine. The result is Oaxaca Kitchen, in New Haven. Here, Mr. Chirnomula interprets traditional Mexican cuisine through the bright contemporary lens that characterizes the food at his other restaurants. Some of his dishes work better than others, but given the chef’s creativity and the excellent service, the experience is well worth the adventure.
Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Ceviche Veracruz, with poached shrimp and lump crabmeat.
Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Lobster-filled tortillas, with chopped tomato, onion sauce and poblano crème.
Mr. Chirnomula’s skill for refinement was evident one recent evening in a ceviche Veracruz of poached shrimp and lump crabmeat, flavored with chopped bell pepper, onion and lime juice. Served in a stemmed glass, this excellent appetizer was finished with a spoonful of roasted tomato salsa with avocado and a scoop of mango sorbet. The icy sorbet brightened and chilled the seafood while adding just enough sweetness to round out the acidity of the lime. A red pepper sorbet was also used to good effect on a puréed gazpacho, heightening the fresh flavor of the soup.
Another starter, a seafood salad, was restyled as a mound of arugula dressed with a mild, lightly sweetened citrus vinaigrette and encircled by a large shrimp, a scallop and a shelled lobster claw — each enhanced with a spice rub, then grilled. An exceptional entree was a plate of large, plump shrimp spiced with a guajillo chile rub and flambéed withmezcal, an Oaxacan spirit made from the maguey plant; the shrimp were accompanied by a beautifully seasoned black bean salad.
In a recent phone conversation, Mr. Chirnomula said that his study of Mexican cooking in Oaxaca uncovered an affinity between traditional cuisines in India and Mexico. Techniques are similarly uncomplicated, he said, and they share many ingredients. These similarities are particularly pronounced in the moles at Oaxaca Kitchen. The word mole, derived from an Aztec word for stew, is applied to a multitude of complex sauces and stews throughout Mexico. Constructed much like Indian curries, the mixtures are made with dried and fresh chiles, aromatic vegetables, nuts, seeds and a complex combination of spices.
Mr. Chirnomula has updated the stewlike presentation of traditional moles by plating poultry and seafood — cooked separately — atop a generous bed of the sauce. Of the three I tasted, the green pumpkin mole (served with delicious seared scallops) and the green pistachio mole (accompanying a juicy, charbroiled duck breast) were my favorites; the mildly sweet, yellow Oaxacan mole that sauced a nicely cooked fillet of monkfish was less compelling. The pumpkin and pistachio moles were so reminiscent of Indian food that I assumed the recipe was an Indian-Mexican fusion. In fact, while the chef does enhance some dishes with non-Mexican spices like fenugreek, he maintained that his moles are made from traditional Mexican recipes.
The hanger steak barbacoa, served in parchment paper tied up like a beggar’s purse, was also strongly suggestive of Indian cuisine. The ultra-tender cubed steak was marinated in a complex spice mixture with onion and tomato, then slow cooked; Indian lamb stews are made in a very similar fashion.
Not all dishes were as successful. The pork tenderloin in pozole, a traditional pork and hominy soup, was dry. Quesos flameados, a generous dish of melted mixed cheeses, with small, whole shrimp and finely chopped chorizo, was tasty, but also dry. Chiles rellenos, stuffed with cubed Mexican cheese (queso fresco), corn, spinach and black beans, tasted nondescript.
The vegetarian quesadilla, however, filled with roasted peppers, mushrooms, black beans and Mexican cheeses, was straightforward, nicely browned and satisfying. And the guacamole was delicious, made to order tableside in the traditional stone molcajete, with cilantro, onion, fresh chiles and a substantial hit of fresh lime juice.
Rice, beans and tortillas are available upon request at no charge, as noted on the menu. Don’t pass up the rice and beans — they’re terrific — but I wished our corn tortillas had been homemade.
Some desserts were simply not on a par with the rest of the cuisine. A piece of Mexican flan was grainy, and a square of tres leches cake was sweet and moist, but otherwise unremarkable. The cinnamon-scented sopapilla cheesecake, however, was wonderful. The cream cheese filling was flavored with Mexican vanilla, crusted on top and bottom with crisp, layered pastry and sprinkled with cinnamon and agave nectar.
228 College Street
THE SPACE Previously occupied by Caffe Adulis, an Ethiopian restaurant, the space has a dimly lighted interior that has been painstakingly reconstructed in dark wood with wrought iron fixtures, traditional and contemporary art and the occasional cow hide for the rustic look of Old Mexico. Comfortable booths and tables, but the music can be loud. Wheelchair access.
THE CROWD An urban mix, with lots of students. Dress ranges from very casual to the occasional suit. Active bar crowd on some evenings. Service is terrific: attentive, helpful and amiable. Children would be fine here.
THE BAR Attractive, lively, rustic bar area at entrance. Substantial menu of tequilas and mescals; smaller beer menu. Limited international wine list, about half in the $30 to $40 range. Wine by the glass, $7 to $11.
THE BILL Portions are reasonably priced and large; two starters will satisfy a medium appetite. Appetizers, $6 to $14; entrees, $18 to $24. All major credit cards accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED Guacamole, gazpacho, seafood salad, ceviche Veracruz, vegetarian quesadilla, beef tacos, barbacoa de res, duck breast with pistachio mole, scallops with pumpkin mole, sautéed shrimp with garlic and mezcal, sopapilla cheesecake.
IF YOU GO Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Brunch: Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Limited menu at bar, which is open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 to 1:30 a.m. Dinner reservations recommended. Parking on street or in pay lot behind restaurant.
RATINGS Don’t Miss, Worth It, O.K., Don’t Bother.