Drop your Walter White/Miley at the VMAs Halloween costumes (seriously…put them down…) and head over to Oyamel Concina Mexicana for the real thing. For the 2 weeks between October 21st and November 3rd, José Andrés and his culinary team has put together a great array of offerings inspired by one of Mexico’s most important and influential holidays, El Día de los Muertos. This year, the fête celebrates one dead person in particular, José Guadalupe Posada, Mexican artist and cartoonist most well known for his funny skeleton illustrations doubling as political satires. Just as Posadas transformed stoic public figures into giggling, silly skeletons, the menu at Oyamel attempts to mold simple, traditional Mexican dishes out of gourmet ingredients. These reimagined foods are the pre-Hispanic, pre-Christian native Mexican favorites inspired by the November 2nd ritual of families visiting their buried loved ones in cemeteries, placing treats on their graves (among them tequila and cigarettes!) and having picnics on blankets lain near their tombstones.
This past Tuesday I attended a preview of the celebration and got a sneak peek of the Day of the Dead menu and cocktail list.
After a murky and even slightly bitter caviar-topped amuse-bouche, I had the Pato frito en chile seco served in a smooth white spoon which the stuff slid right off of in a single juicy, moist mouthful. In the center was a crispy, bite-sized chunk of fried Hudson Valley duck leg waddling in a puddle of bright red Chihuatl mole made out what I think was dried ancho chiles with some sweet pomegranate juice squeezed in as well. Surrounding the duck were thin strands of sweet Japanese kabocha squash and some earthy bits of wild mushroom, all topped with a tart, bright pomegranate pico de gallo. Though a bit busy, I thought this was a very well-constructed dish. The duck was showcased in all its glory: that crackling, brittle crunch most commonly praised in its caramelized, golden skin, as well as the tender, slightly gummy texture unique to its dark brown flesh. Both of these aspects were highlighted by a contrast brought in by butter-soft kabocha squash and chewy mushrooms. I very much enjoyed how the savory, smokey tones of the mole invaded the duck meat, painting the tender flesh with its flavor. The acidity of the pomegranate seeds awakened the palate from the trance induced by the deep flavors of the dish. The cool crunch also added textural intrigue and kept things interesting.
I discussed this dish later on in the evening with Chef Colin King and learned that it was actually inspired by a duck gizzard and liver dish drenched with mole into which the pomegranate was originally introduced to offset the funky flavor of the innards. While lard is traditionally used in moles like this, Chef King used oil to keep it on the lighter side for us. I guess we got the fancy/healthy version, but I would definitely be interested in trying the original.
It was unfortunate that I happened to try the Pato borracho for the first time right after the fried duck dish. As my palate had already been coated in the flavorful juices of the bird and surrounding Chihuatl chiles, I missed the flavors of duck fat with which the Gran Centenario Anejo was infused as well as the subtle hint of that same chile with which the drink was spiked. The pomegranate and pineapple were there, acidic and sweet but without the complexity from the duck and chiles it fell as flat as teenage fruit punch mixing with deep, dark, boozy anejo. The almond air just added sweetness to something already overwhelmingly sweet and it all seemed a bit immature.
But Chef King was not going to let me leave feeling that way about one of his special Dia de los Muertos cocktail creations. He encouraged me to try the drink again later on in the night when my palate was released from the spells of the ripe moles and could once again romp around freely, searching for subtle flavors to explore. I did, with great results. This time, the toasty flavors of the duck fat emerged right after the very first sip, running down the edges of my tongue and remaining present and savory on the palate as the sweet/acidic fruit and oaky anejo eventually came through as well. I loved the way that the smokiness of the duck fat found the woody body of the anejo and latched tightly onto it. The pomegranate and pineapple contrasted against this smoky-woody combination, and thus brought it to the forefront. I also enjoyed the floral, clean, vanilla- and honey-scented sweetness of the almond air. It brought a foamy, carefree bubble-bath texture to the drink.
Next up, the Chichilo negro, a classic dish of beef short ribs drenched (in a good way) in what is one of the seven most celebrated moles in Oaxaca, yet perhaps the least known among them. In this case, the meat was slow-cooked for an impressive 36 hours. It was sliced thin enough to allow one to appreciate the marbling and fall-apart tenderness but just thick enough to satisfy carnivorous urges. The mole was a version of an original recipe which contains a whopping 32 ingredients, including a combination of chiles that contributes to the dark color: chilhuacle black pepper, pasilla and mulatto pepper. Seeds are kept in and toasted corn tortillas are often thrown in as well both to contribute a smoky ash flavor and to thicken the sauce. Now, I’m not really going to sit here and pretend that I could actually tell what kind of peppers were used in this mole, as I am not a wrinkly, wise Oaxacan grandmother. Point is, the texture of the sauce was very rich, the flavors deep and with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon to round out the chiles. The beef picked up these flavors nicely and the combination resulted in a juicy, complex bite of food. Some sort of very thinly sliced strings of vegetable (chayote? micro-fung?) which lay below the meat and soaked in the mole provided additional intrigue to the texture of the dish. Awesome.
A dish that came around quite frequently was the Ostiones pimentón. Oysters served on the half shell after being very lightly poached with bay leaf, garlic and black peppercorn. Topping the fluffy, soft bundle was a squeeze of fresh lime juice and caviar. Although I did enjoy the warm sensation brought on by the flavors of garlic and bay leaf, especially when contrasted with the acidity of lime juice and murky, tidal funk of caviar, I was misguided by the title of this dish to think it was going to incorporate paprika and was a bit disappointed when that heat I was expecting was absent. The creatures were also a tad difficult to slurp out of their shell, as they were rather small and still pretty attached to their calcium carbonate abode. I normally wouldn’t have minded at all, as I’ve found smaller oysters usually have a more concentrated flavor, but at a standing reception when one is trying to juggle a cocktail and circulating finger-foods, nudging the oysters off their shells made for a lot of awkward movements.
The Cempasuchil was a fantastic drink that outshone many of the ones I thought I would enjoy more (Resucitó). A simple combination of Pueblo Viego blanco tequila infused in house with lavender, and mixed with a bit of Creme Yvette, which is a violet liquor with floral notes of vanilla and honey as well as a very subtle berry flavor. The drink was garnished with mint and a stem of lavender. When lifting the glass to sip, the aroma of the lavender filled my nose and readied me for the sweeter flavors. Light and playful, tastes of spring.
While waiting around for the specials to circulate, we made our way a few times to a table which had set up a large lava bowl with house-made guacamole and chips. Mashed avocados, some green tomatillo, serrano chiles to add a significant amount of heat, and some crumbled queso fresco over the top. There was also a tangy chipotle, onion and roasted tomato salsa with a nice rusty color to it. I really enjoyed the flavors of the guacamole, as it had a good balance of heat and acidity from the cheese, and it wasn’t overwhelmed with lime juice. I did think it was a bit watery in texture, however, either because the tomatillos added too much juice or because the avocados weren’t buttery ripe enough. I suspect it might have been the later. Either way, cool presentation (mashed up table-side with the oversized mortar and pestle set-up) and definitely a crowd pleaser. Also, the fried tortilla chips served alongside them were great – very crisp and surprisingly flavorful on their own, seasoned with chiles, salt and tequila.
Another great dish whose flavors still resonate on my tongue now, days after the event, was the Sopa de calabaza. A thick, bright orange puree of pumpkin and squash, drizzled with a bright red chile and annetto infused oil and a dollop of melty foie gras. Some spiced pumpkin seeds were thrown in for a wonderful nutty crunch. A gorgeous little squash flower adorned a dish that I found to be a very well thought-out and aesthetically pleasing. Both the colors, flavors and velvety smooth texture of the soup reminded me of a tired orange sweater, warm and cozy on a brisk autumn night. The caramelized and slightly floral sweetness of the roasted calabaza blended beautifully with the smoky, salty duck liver and was offset by the heat and pepperiness of the chile-achiote oil, making for a complex dish. The nuttiness that the achiote seed infusion added to the oil found the nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds and these also added a wonderful crunch to contrast the smoothness of the rest of the ingredients.
I get my margaritas with a sugar rim. I know it’s tragically uncool to do so but the salt rim always tastes too agressive to me, as if it were some sort of punishment for the funky, happy feelings that the delicious tequila inspires within me. So I usually go with sugar which also doesn’t quite hit the spot as it combines with the sweet fruit in the marg and ends up in a tacky, sticky feel which is also not what the mustachioed agave farmer intended his product to be overwhelmed with. The solution? A gentler introduction to the tartness of salt, a foam instead of harsh crystals. The Oyamel Margarita‘s salt air is delightfully light, and dipping the tip of my tongue into the stuff reminded me of a marine tide pushing me playfully against the beach. The salt has a murky, low-tide flavor to it which dried my lips out and made me crave the replenishing sweetness and citric tartness of the liquid underneath the same way that one craves a fresh jugo de naranja after a long swim in the particularly salty Mediterranean. A very clean and simple Milagro blanco, triple sec and lime juice combo whose flavors were brought forth by the contrast but not overwhelmed by the tang of salt. Available all the time, not just for the festivities. Get one.
While the food and drink circulated at a rather modest pace, I did end up trying bite-sized previews of what’s to come at Oyamel for the Day of the Dead festival. I appreciated the creativity behind the dishes and the emphasis on veering away from the oh-so-many cliches associated with (the American perception of) Mexican culture. For example, duck is not something that appears on Taco Tuesday’s happy hour menus across the U.S. It was, however, one of the most appreciated proteins in pre-Hispanic Mayan and Aztec diets, along with turkey, duck, dove, quail, partridge and other small game birds. (A great source to learn these ingredients is the array of books written by Adela Fontes about traditional Mexican cooking.) Moles often confuse and overwhelm the non-Mexican chefs of non-authentic Mexican restaurants and so they’re usually of poor quality and left pretty much untouched instead of played with like they were in many of the dishes I tried that night. The cocktails showed a firm grasp of the concept behind different tequilas and the ways in which their different flavors can be exploited. A good night, an attentive and passionate chef, a wide and satisfied tequila-induced grin on my face.