After more than two decades educating Fairfield County foodies on Indian cuisine with his restaurants, Thali and Thali Too, Chef Prasad Chirnomula has decided to leave both the country of his birth and the country he now calls home for a seemingly unfamiliar cuisine, Mexican. What brought this interest on was a natural curiosity for the flavorful combinations of this region and dissatisfaction for what he often received stateside. He enjoyed the ambiance of Mexican restaurants—the great music, the bright colors, the tequila—and then came the food, which left him completely underwhelmed. It seemed that no matter what he ordered, he could be sure it would be buried in cheese and sauce, making the food unrecognizable.
Given his years of experience he felt pretty certain that this cuisine was being misrepresented and headed south, way south, to Oaxaca, Mexico, to see and taste for himself.
Oaxaca is known for its “seven moles” (pronounced molay), sauces made from a combination of chili peppers, spices, and sometimes chocolate; these seven are called manchamanteles, chichilo, amarillo, rojo, verde, coloradito and negro. Prasad chose this region of Mexico for inspiration, recognizing many similarities between moles and Indian masalas, chabhati and tortillas, and rice as a central component of both cuisines. He decided this would be an interesting challenge, but the larger question remained: Could an Indian chef bring authentic Mexican cuisine to the States and be taken seriously?
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding—or in this case, the mole. He brought back pure culinary inspiration from his trip and started putting together a menu that was defined by its elements and presentation. He wanted to represent the flavors of Oaxaca, while showing a French-inspired refinement in his plating. He eventually opened Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven to great acclaim and was recently reviewed by the New York Times. The Times called him an “innovative chef” and gave the restaurant a “Worth It” grade, the equivalent of three out of four stars. He was also invited to cook at the James Beard House (an accolade every chef hopes to receive one day) and was honored to cook for a sold-out event at $170 a seat.
FOCUS ON WESTPORT
Prasad’s Westport restaurant, Thali Too, is a vegetarian Indian restaurant that opened to rave reviews, but not great patronage. Prasad was proud of his menu and thought it was fun, but he quickly heard grumbling. His loyal carnivorous clientele from his other Thali restaurants—one in New Canaan and the other in Ridgefield—were disappointed about the lack of meat dishes. He admits that to a certain extent, he was perplexed at the response; after all, the New Canaan restaurant isn’t that far from Westport. But as patronage increased in New Canaan, it decreased in Westport. Good for New Canaan, not so great for Westport.
Prasad left for a three-week trip to India and contemplated what to do with the restaurant. He could change the menu back to a more traditional, meat-laden menu or he could change everything.
He changed everything.
As of the printing of this magazine, Prasad is transitioning his Thali Too Indian restaurant into the next Oaxaca Kitchen. Its success in New Haven, coupled with a need in this area for refined Mexican cuisine, makes him confident that the community will respond well to the change. He plans to include a few Indian inspired dishes on the menu, but it will not be an Indi-Mex fusion. Rather, the menu will speak to Oaxaca’s gastronomy with a small nod to the Indian cuisine Prasad is known for. His primary focus will be on creating a dynamic menu that emphasizes the complexity of moles.
Some highlights from the new menu include dishes like the Ceviche Veracruz. This starter combines healthy portions of poached shrimp, jumbo lump crab cake, spicy green olives and a roasted tomato salsa, with an unexpectedly sweet, cold burst of mango sorbet. This combination harmoniously blends the flavors, softening the effect of the spicy salsa. Another is the Ostiones Carmelizados a la Mixteca, perfectly pan-seared scallops in a pumpkin mole verde with blistered baby tomatoes. What distinguishes this mole is the lightness that comes from the purée of fresh green herbs.
For meat lovers, the Barbacoa de Res is a slow-cooked hanger steak, seasoned with a myriad of spices and cooked in maguey leaves (known primarily for the sap it extracts to create the alcoholic beverage pulque). This extended cooking makes the meat so tender, it is literally falling apart; seasoned rice and beans complete the meal.
Chef Prasad courtesy of FRANCISCO AGUILA; Sopapilla courtesy of Philip gross photography
Chef Prasad puts the final touches on his Sopapilla Cheesecake at the James Beard dinner. (right) This multilayered dessert starts with a crispy sopapilla pastry, a layer of warm cheesecake and a scoop of avocado ice cream and is finished with agave nectar.
Dessert selections are limited, yet tempting. The Tres Leches is a traditional Mexican dessert, three-milk sponge cake, soaked in heavy cream, evaporated and condensed milk, topped with a light margarita whipped cream. Despite the richness of the ingredients, the cold creaminess is reminiscent of homemade ice cream. Another sweet treat is the Sopapilla cheesecake—a crispy, Spanish fried pastry that is layered with a warm, creamy vanilla and cinnamon cheesecake and topped with avocado ice cream. Each component adds another level of flavor and texture that makes this an unbelievably addictive dessert.
If he is able to produce the same level of service, cuisine and ambiance found in New Haven, he will have a hit on his hands. You get to be the judge when it opens this month.