Friday, September 28, 2007

A Review of: Casa Oaxaca

I have an imaginary restaurant in my head. In this ideal restaurant of mine, all array of wondrous dishes are served, and healthy, organic and free-range options litter the ample menu. Waiters refill your water glass before it is empty and can comment knowledgably on any food item that you might have a question about (no "well, I don't like fish so I really can't say..." here!). The seats are comfy, inviting one to linger, and the noise level is low enough that one can converse with ones fellow diners without shouting.

This imaginary restaurant grows with every culinary outing that I make. If I like a dish, such as, for example, the fabulous marscapone and goat cheese stuffed baked dates at Komi, they immediately get added to the menu. As you can imagine, its one of those bulky multi-pagers, where you just can't decide what to get...because everything is delicious here at Cafe Lyra!

I realize, looking over my blog entries of the past weeks, that despite my best intentions, I have yet to post a review of a restaurant in Washington DC. I always meant to toss in a few reviews for potential local readers (or maybe just to spout off to myself). And I have a lot of good restaurants to write about too! So after this long delay (I guess I was too busy eating...or maybe it was that paper I was writing), here goes my first attempt to describe a recent dining experience that added yet another delicacy to my fantasy restaurant menu.

Just last Friday José and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal out. At first we thought of hitting up the new and Tom-approved Las Canteras, a Peruvian restaurant in Adams Morgan,(for those not in the know, Tom Seitsema is the food critic for the Washington Post. He has rarely steered me wrong-the man knows good food!), but then we decided Mexican sounded better and made a reservation at Casa Oaxaca, which had also received the thumbs-up from the Washington Post.

Tom's review of Casa Oaxaca had praised the Ceviche de Huachinango con Piña (red snapper ceviche with pineapple), so I was looking forward to a real treat. We arrived at the appointed hour and were promptly seated. The restaurant takes up two stories of a converted row house on 18th street, in the heart of Adams Morgan, a lively bar district that is usually full of drunk frat boys by 3 in the morning. Casa Oaxaca's decor reflected none of this chaos-instead it transported us straight to Mexico. We were greeted by a large dish of imported candies at the host station and a warm and friendly interior with bright cushioned benches along the walls. Burnt orange walls sport Olmec inspired woodwork and Rivera-esque paintings featuring south-of-the-border landscapes, and small wooden tables fill the cozy space. Downstairs from the dining room is a basement bar that looked inviting and busy although we didn't venture down to check it out.

Unfortunately the restricted space of the row house meant that we were crammed in between two other small tables along the wall, both already taken by eager customers. Casa Oaxaca is far from the only restaurant with cramped seating in a high rent district like DC- a lot of places could take a lesson from Komi and remove some of their tables-so we didn't take it personally. Our server was friendly and prompt and I was soon perusing the small Oaxaca focused menu while sipping their house margarita.

Let me stop for a minute and talk about margaritas and Casa Oaxaca. Tom's review raves about the 20 odd tequilas on the menu, and with good reason. You can spend from 6 to upwards of 15 dollars on a shot of premium imported tequila, meant to be sipped slowly during the meal, not downed a la the frat boys down the street. While I wasn't about to dish out extra dollars for special tequila on our first visit, I did order the house margarita (7 bucks), and let me tell you something: I don't know what tequila they used, but it was THE BEST margarita that I have ever had. I'm still upset that José dragged me out the door before I could finish it (I tipple too slowly for some). The menu also offers mezcal, another agave-based liquor that Tom Seitsema describes as going down "like liquid smoke, from a volcano". Something else to try next time...

The menu is short and sweet. It is divided into several sections: Antojitos (appetizers), Los Favoritos de Casa Oaxaca (Casa Oaxaca favorites), Platos Fuertes (entrees), Famosos Tacos (famous tacos) and of course, Postres (desserts). For my antojito I had already settled on the ceviche, and José ordered the Rellenitos de Platano Macho (plantain patties stuffed with black beans). For the main course we decided to try one of the famous Oaxacan moles with an order of Mole Amarillo con Pollo (yellow mole with chicken), as well as the Tom-recommended Arrachera Oaxaqueña (grilled skirt steak with black beans, guacamole and tortillas dipped in chipotle sauce).

While we waited for our appetizers we munched on sticks of jicama flavoured with a little chile powder and lime juice-a great way to kick start the appetite without drowning it in salsa and chips like at every other Mexican restaurant.

The appetizers arrived quickly and we dug right in. My ceviche was stylishly presented as a molded cake with a delicate fanning of ripe avocado on top, but to my disappointment, the dish didn't live up to my expectations. It may be that I am biased: Belizean ceviche is usually full of slices of fiery scotch bonnet pepper, while this one was relatively mild and to my taste, a bit tame. The pineapple was a nice touch, but I feel it would have played off the fish better if a bit more spice add been added to temper the sweetness. There was also a bit of a "fishy" flavour-yes, I know, it is raw fish, but I'm talking about a low-tide fishiness that lingered on the tongue just a tad too long. It wasn't bad, and I did polish it off, but at 12 dollars a plate, I doubt I will be ordering it again.

The rellenitos de platano macho, on the other hand, were a whole other story. They instantly won a space on my fantasy restaurant menu. Crispy and sweet on the outside, as a good fried plantain is meant to be, these little cakes were stuffed with superb refried black beans. Served with a generous sprinkle of freshly shredded queso fresco, these hot and savory cakes disappeared almost immediately. It was all I could do to snatch a bite or two from under Josés fork. They were fabulous.

Our entrees arrived a short while after we had finished the appetizers (kudos to the kitchen and wait staff for great timing). I was a bit saddened to see that my delicious corn tortillas were not dipped in chipotle sauce as advertised on the menu, but the steak was still juicy, a bit chewy as skirt steak will be, but flavourful and great with a tortilla, more of the delicious refried beans and some good guacamole. The chicken with yellow mole sauce wasn't quite as memorable. The mole amarillo, we decided, was just too bland for our palates-more like some kind of cafeteria sauce than we would like. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't that wonderful, and certainly didn't have the bold character of other famous moles from the region. It may have been our mistake to not sample the mole negro or the mole coloradito, both promising more spice and flavour than what we ended up choosing.

We decided to forego dessert, as the hearty portions of the platos fuertes had filled us right up, but the flan de horchata sounded particularly intriguing. By far the best food that night: the rellenitos de platano macho and the margarita. I would avoid the ceviche and the mole amarillo unless you prefer bland food. On our next trip I hope to sample the kekas that Tom mentions in his review, and see if the mole negro lives up to its name. And yes, despite the disappointments, there will be a next trip. It's worth it for the rellenitos de platano alone. Casa Oaxaca would also be the perfect spot to grab a drink and an appetizer at the welcoming bar downstairs before braving the seedier drinking venues further down the street.

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