Thursday, November 01, 2007

Los Siete Moles de Oaxaca

Chilaquiles con Salsa de Tomatillo, Queso y Cilantro.

After spending yesterday morning at Titita Ramirez's cooking demonstration, I decided that I had to go down to Oyamel and try her seven moles. Was going to go last night, but thought that I should go out with friends on Halloween, so I saved the trip for tonight. Of course, I didn't count on the fact that I was completely and utterly exhausted due to working long hours, running all over the city and waiting until late at night to ring Ana, then having to get up again the next morning with only four hours of sleep. After a week of this kind of schedule, I was beat tired and wasn't looking forward to the drive to DC.

But drive I must to deliver the latest and greatest in food adventures for my energetic readers.

Met up with CapitolSwell around 9:30pm and was seated right away. This was my second time visiting Oyamel. The first was right after my return from Mexico City with Spike, Mariano and Luisa. There were some questions in my mind then and I wanted to settle them with this trip.

The notion that Titita Ramirez would be hosted by Jose Andres and Oyamel was a bit ironic in my mind. During my Mexico City trip, the chilaquiles at Ramirez's El Bajio were the best I sampled and I've since modeled my own approach after hers. The chilaquiles from Oyamel in September were, well, I won't go into that here. More on that later...

Oyamel is Jose Andres' interpretation of Mexican "street food." It's a nicely done restaurant with a very modern interior design that incorporates Mexican "touches" to give it flair. Orange hues on the wall, lots of candles and decidedly Dia de Los Muertos decorations for the occasion: skulls, paper cutouts. Overall, nicely done, but I could do without the very modern touches, like the steel bulkhead and uncomfortable seat cushions that compress to much so that your legs are pinched by the frame. The lighting is very moody, which is nice for the ambience, but too low to see your food.

As is our usual Modus Operandi, we decided to order a number of plates to share. As soon as I sat down, I orderd their Papas al Mole right away to get us rolling. French fries drizzled with mole poblano, queso cotija y crema. Served in what looked like a stiff paper hot dog holder, it meant to reinforce the notion of "street food." However, I would have preferred that the fries came out hot instead of on the warm side as though it had been sitting at the pass for some time. Otherwise, the flavors of the mole were quite enjoyable: deep, rich, twangs of chocolate. It would have been nicely done had the fries come out hot.

Tacos were next on our list. Unfortunately, they were out of the one I was looking forward to trying: Tacos de Chapulines, the Oaxacan specialty of sauteed grasshoppers. That was lame. CapitolSwell ordered the Carnitas con salsa de tomatillo taco - confit of baby pig with green tomatillo sauce (I didn't know there was any other variety), pork rinds, onion and cilantro. Sounds pretty good, right?

Now, if you're someone that goes to traditional Mexican taco joints, you kinda know what to expect. Some meat, some stuff and two corn tortillas. If you're like me and find the stuffing to be quite generous, you pull apart the tortillas and make two. The carnitas came out completely stuffed - to the gills. With only one tortilla. I sampled it. The pork was tender and flavorful, the ground pork rinds added some texture and the seasoning was just right - no need to add stuff like you do at the taco joints. But the thing was so overstuffed that the meat overwhelmed everything else. Out of balance. Too much meat and the corn tortilla was lost.

Quesadilla Huitlacoche.

The next round brought us the Quesadilla Huitlacoche and Chilaquiles con Salsa de Tomatillo, Queso y Cilantro - which is a lot of name for just chilaquiles, but more on that later.

For those of you unfamiliar, huitlacoche is a black corn fungus that's not readily found in America but a delicacy in Mexico. They called it a "Black Mexican Truffle" at Oyamel, which, I guess, is accurate in that a truffle (as we know them from France) is also a fungus, but I found it odd and a bit misleading to label it a "truffle." They've already called a grasshopper a "grasshopper", why not call a fungus a "fungus"?

The huitlacoche was nicely done. A bit plain as a folded quesadilla, I wondered how it might turn out wrapped in corn masa and deep fried. Mixed with yellow corn and Queso Oaxaqueno, it was enjoyable and demonstrated flavors unusual to the American palate that surprised CapitolSwell.

After what I thought was a tasty, but unfortunate show of the chilaquiles the last time we were here, I decided to order it again to see if it was just an off night or if that's really how they do it here. Sadly, it was the latter rather than the former.

At El Bajio, which I am now holding as the definition of chilaquiles on my tongue, the tortillas are laid out and coated with the salsa, then sprinkled with crumbled cheese, Mexican crema, topped with a fried egg and served with a side of refried beans. To me, it is what chilaquiles are all about. A luxurious juxtaposition of chips softened by the sauce and other chips keeping their crunch. Es divino.

I hate to say it, but the chilaquiles at Oyamel are little more than glorified Nachos to satisfy the American palate. Served in a nice-looking cazuela, the chips are drenched in salsa verde before being smothered in Queso Chihuahua y Queso Oaxaqueno that is then melted and blistered under a broiler. If you're looking for something very similar to "Nachos", this is the dish. But if you're looking for an understanding of chilaquiles, this is not the one.

Earlier I said that I thought it was "ironic" that Titita Ramirez would be hosted by Oyamel - that's because of my chilaquiles comparison. That hers were amazing and theirs lackluster. I wish they would have Titita go through their menu a bit.

But all of that is just idle chatter, the reason we were here tonight was because of Titita Ramirez's Mole. This is why I had made two trips to DC in two days - and risked killing myself at the wheel due to exhaustion.

The "Day of the Dead" Specials from Carmen "Titita" Ramirez listed:

Margarita de Chamoy
Titita's margarita with Siembra Azul Blanco tequila, tamarind, chile and salt air

7 Moles de Oaxaca
Take a tour of Oaxaca and its' seven traditional moles. Served with grilled chicken, seared duck breast, pork rib, refried beans and a side of house made tortillas.

Camote y Pina
A traditional "Day of the Dead" dessert of sweet potato and pineapple puree served with pineapple soup.

Calabaza en Tacha y Bunuelo
Calabaza pumpkin candied with piloncillo sugar and spices and served with deep fried pastry.

7 Moles de Oaxaca.

The seven moles were quite a production. Two plates and a woven basket for the tortillas. On the side plate were the moles, each in its' own little saucer ready for dipping. Of course, the plates arrived and no one told us what mole was what. A few moments later, our waiter, who seemed quite new to restaurant service, came by to inform us that the green was the mole verde and that the moles continued down the list in the same order:

Mole Verde
A delicate mole made with fresh greens and typically served with vegetables.

Mole Manchamantel
A fruity mole that includes pineapple, sweet potato and plantain.

Mole Coloradito
A red mole made with a unique chile only found in Oaxaca.

Mole Almendrado
A red mole made with almonds and dried chiles.

Mole Amarillo
A yellow mole made with avocado leaves and a unique yellow chile found in Oaxaca.

Mole Chichilo
A mole made with unique Oaxacan chiles and tomatillo.

Mole Negro
The King of Moles. Mole Negro has a smoky and earthy flavor.

The problem was that there must have been some disconnect between the kitchen and the front of the house because our moles were not in that order.

Because of my experience in Mexico City, I'm a fan of El Bajio. Which is why it pains me to report that I was underwhelmed with the moles.

Granted, I'm no expert with mole. I barely know anything about them. But, for some reason, these just didn't dazzle me. There were hints of something special, but nothing powerful was spoken. The little that I do know about mole is that it's more a smothering sauce, designed to cover whatever meat is being served. Since these were served in little sauces, I think the moles lose context and, therefore, they lose their meaning and power.

I tried dipping pieces of duck, chicken, pork and beef in all the sauces but found it unsatisfying. For someone without any knowledge of these foods, I think it would have been a more powerful statement for the moles to be served individually - in the meat most appropriate for the mole, as decided by Titita Ramirez. I imagine that's how it's done at El Bajio and I wish it was done here as well. CapitolSwell also noted that there were just too many competing flavors for anyone to fully comprehend and appreciate any of them.

That said, I liked the Mole Almendrado the best. It had a nice, thick texture. Rich, warm and enjoyable. Just wish it's flavor was a bit more pronounced.

Sopes con Polvo de Chicharron.

Next up and a bit out of order, was the Sopes con Polvo de Chicharron. Four "traditional" corn flour cakes topped with ground pork rind and house made guacamole.

You know you're in some sort of interpretation of traditional food when the sopes come out the size of silver dollar coins. The corn masa tortilla "cakes" were crispy and nicely done. The guacamole had a bit of spice and kick to it, but the chicharron were just gratuitous. They were piled on high and didn't really make any sense on a flavor scale. The quantity was as though they were putting it on a normal sized sope. The pork rinds were just "too much" and overpowered everything else. For two people that love pork fried anything - especially fried pork rinds, to see half the order remaining on our plate was just telling.

Calabaza en Tacha y Bunuelo.

Moving into the dessert section, I decided to go with the special Calabaza en Tacha y Bunuelo while CapitolSwell went with Pastel de Tres Leches con Pina - traditional cake soake in Myers rum and three kinds of milk, with rum & milk foam, fresh pineapple gelatin and pinepple salsa, with a scoop of dark caramel ice cream.

The calabaza was something I had read about in some Mexican cookbooks. It looked interesting, so I went with it. Not bad. The pumpkin was soft and had a sweet and nutty flavor from the piloncillo. The accompanying pastry was crispy and coated with cinnamon and sugar but otherwise unremarkable.

The Tres Leches cake had a decidedly modern twist with the foam and gelatin. The gelatin was lightly sweet and thick. But the flavor of the cake with caramel ice cream was pretty darn good. A highlight of the meal. While I returned to my pumpkin (without ice cream), I secretly wished I could swipe CapitolSwell's cake.

My gentle readers know that I'm in the coffee business. Those in the coffee business know that I'm a pretty opinionated operator who's made the call for better coffee in restaurants. I already knew that Oyamel was using Mexican Chiapas coffee from Southern Skies Coffee in Sykesville, but did our server know that as well?

After a few moments of questioning and our server consulting with the manager, he returned to inform us that the coffee being served was indeed a Mexican Chiapas from Southern Skies. He even brought along the five pound bag to show us. Nice.

When dining, I regularly ask our servers these questions. If the coffee isn't up to my expectations and is from a less than compelling roaster, I decline coffee. I urge all of you to do the same. The more people that demand quality coffee, the sooner restauranteurs and chefs will wake up and smell it.

Decided to go with the Chiapas that our server said was made recently. The coffee came out in glass cups with steam rising from the liquid. But it was on the cooler side of 180F. I didn't have any problems drinking it because of heat. However, the coffee was drip filtered and lacked the body of a French pressed coffee. Not exactly the perfect crown to a meal but superior than most restaurants.

Pastel de Tres Leches con Pina.

All in all, I was disappointed. Maybe I hyped it up in my mind too much. Maybe El Bajio and their chilaquiles weren't that good. Maybe it was that good because I was with Ana - heck, I could have eaten at McDonald's with her and thought it was the best meal of my life. Whatever the case, I guess I expected a lot from this dinner and what we were served left me underwhelmed and unsatisfied.

I sat there for a long time at the time trying to analyze and understand why I wasn't blown away by the moles and I think it's context. If a certain someone ever invites me to visit Mexico City again (hint, hint - I'm ready), El Bajio will be top on my list to try these moles as they should be served: in context.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

Dia de Los Muertos

Today and tomorrow, Mexicans in Mexico and throughout the world celebrate a holiday known as Day of the Dead. No, it's not some horror flick, it's long tradition and I thought we'd bring a little of that to The Spro.

Senora Lopez at Fiesta Mexicana made these little tables of food for Dia de Los Muertos, so I picked one up the other night and today it's on the front counter with a candle and a cappuccino.

Friends and longtime readers of this blog know that I'm not Mexican. I'm Filipino. And while there may be a tradition in the Philippines called Araw ng mga Patay (same meaning), it's something that my family never celebrated outside of, maybe, going to church for the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints Day.

According to what I understand about Dia de Los Muertos, the day celebrates those of our friends and family who have died. The candle is the light guiding the deceased back to this world. A table is set with a photo of the remembered and their favorite foods. On our table, we have a photo of beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In the center of the table is the traditional pan de muerto, a sweet bread with the shapes of bones on top. Surrounding the pan de muerto are: rum, tequila, Electropura agua, Coca-Cola, frutas, arroz con huevo, mole, frijoles, leche de Alpura and Zucaritas cereal. And since we're at The Spro, I've added a cappuccino.

In traditional celebrations, it can days of planning and labor to prepare the food and everything for Dia de Los Muertos, but what happens to the food? I wondered that too. Throughout the day, no one touches the food. It's for the dead and no one else. It's for them to eat. Of course, as per usual with ethereal beings, they are unable to consume the food (as we understand consumption) and the food is disposed of at the end of the holiday.

Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated on both November 1st and 2nd, and even if you aren't Mexican, it seems to me to be a good way to remember our deceased loved ones.