Experience Meal / Food Travel America / Mexico

An evening at Casa Oaxaca for Festival El Saber del Sabor

When the program for El Saber del Sabor was announced, with the line up of chefs and where they’d be cooking, I knew the one I had to attend was hosted at Origen with Rodolfo Castellanos cooking with Pablo Salas from Toluca and Alex Stupak from NYC. Seeing as Stupak’s Empellion sits very high on my list for my next NYC trip, and Rodolfo is one of the coolest chef’s I know, attending this dinner was a no brainer.

But I went to Oaxaca this year specifically to attend the festival, so I wanted to go to at least one more of the “expensive meals”. My next choice after the Origen dinner was the Saturday lunch at Mesquite with Chef Mikel Alonso (Biko, Mexico DF), but that one didn’t work out for me. Instead, I attended the Saturday evening event at Casa Oaxaca featuring 2 chefs from Mexico City, Jaier Tellez (Merotoro) and Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil).

I was in touch with Chef Alejandro Ruiz before the event and he’d mentioned there were “a few spaces available” for the Casa Oaxaca dinner, so I should go early in the day to pick up my tickets. When I went by the restaurant, I noticed my tickets were on the top of a big stack numbered 7&8. I wondered if it could be possible that they had sold less than 10 tickets the day before the event. I started to wonder if $1500 (MXN) = US$120 was indeed too steep a price for people to pay.

I was excited to return to Casa Oaxaca for a meal. I remembered how wonderful the outdoor space was from the amazing meal that Chef Alejandro had served me a few years ago. It was chilly the evening of the Casa Oaxaca dinner, but I crossed my fingers that we’d get to eat on the patio overlooking the Santa Domingo Church.

When my dinner companion and I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before the stated 9pm start time and we were seated in a lovely courtyard as we waited for our table. As I looked up to their patio, I noticed it was bustling upstairs, almost like they weren’t ready for the dinner guests to arrive.

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After a few minutes of waiting, we were escorted upstairs to a lovely table on the outer terrace overlooking the Santa Domingo church and directly at a large table set for 18.

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The dining area was almost empty when we arrived, and I feared what time dinner would be served. Knowing the “Mexican regard for time”, I thought there’d be no way we’d be eating before 10. But my worries about waiting for the room to fill before we started were unfounded because a few minutes after we were seated, our first glass of wine was poured and we were served our first course of  botanitas (small snacks).

'El Saber del Sabor Casa Oaxaca tostada atun

Tostada de Atun con vinagreta de pata – Tuna tostada

Flor de calabaza con berenjena – Squash blossom stuffed with a luscious eggplant puree.

Caldo de gallina (Hen soup) and Ceviche de nopal (cactus)

As we were eating our first course, the grand table in front of us started filling up. Chef Alejandro Ruiz and his wife were seated (although Chef Alejandro didn’t stay seated long) and shortly after, the chefs of Biko(Chef Alonso & Bellver), and Chef Ricardo Lemus (Mezquite, Oaxaca) were seated there as well.

El Saber del Sabor Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz

Chef Alex Stupak (Empellon) sitting across from Chef Rodolfo Castellanos (Origen)

Chef Alex Stupak (Empellon, NYC) sitting across from Chef Rodolfo Castellanos (Origen, Oaxaca)

I realized that we were seated facing the crème de la crème of Chefs attending the festival. It became hard to concentrate on eating when I kept wanting to eavesdrop on conversations, but focused in again when the 2nd course was served.

We were a bit confused when the wild boar taco showed up at the table as the second course (listed as the 4th course on the menu), but any confusion around the dish was settled by this delicious little bite that packed so many distinct flavours.

Taco de jabali con pure de frijolon tipo charro y salsa de chile morita con miltomate (Chef Odilon Garcia)

The first tastes were done and I felt settled into the meal, but couldn’t shake the many questions I had about this event. Such as:

  • Why were there so few people at the event? Were the tickets truly so expensive that it was keeping people away? And if so, why were the tickets priced such a way?
  • Why wouldn’t they comp tickets to more people so that the restaurant would have a festive atmosphere rather than feeling so empty?
  • And lastly, why did the menu look so different from the one I’d received the day before? I though the idea behind these events was that each of the 3 chefs would take 2 courses, (which is how the 1st menu read). But according to the menu on the table, it seemed that both Chef Tellez and Chef Odilon Garcia (Casa Oaxaca) had 2 courses each and the other 2 courses, were a combined effort of Tellez and Vallejo. I was most excited to taste Chef Vallejo’s food, seeing as Quintonil was somewhere I’d wanted to try when I was in Mexico City last year, so I was disappointed that there didn’t appear to be one course prepared by Chef Vallejo singularly.

But I’m a non-Spanish speaker in Mexico with servers who only have a basic grasp of English, so I didn’t expect to get into the minute details of the event. I knew I’d be lost in translation for many things throughout the meal, so I decided to concentrate on the food and wine itself.

We were told the fish for the 3rd course, the pescado crudo was mahi mahi, which I’m not sure was right but again this dish was a winner. I loved the firm texture of the fish sitting on top of a creamy potato all brought together with bright notes of acid.

Pescado curado con papas de la sierra y berro.

Alongside the crudo, we were served the Salubute de Jaiba, which was perplexing and perhaps the most “challenging” of the evening. What looked like a dark profiterole, was filled with crab. It wasn’t a delicate crab flavour that I’m used to, but something more pungent. Again, I think I may have found more value in this dish if I knew what I was eating because tasted “blindly”, it was my least favourite bite of the evening.

Salbute de jaiba (Chef Jorge Vallejo)

Inside with crab

Inside with crab

It’s worth mentioning that each course was paired with AlXimia wine from the Baja region in Mexico. I have to admit that one of the things that has made coming to Oaxaca more pleasurable to me is the improvement in quality of Mexican wine over the years.

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I wished that the two dishes of the 4th course were served separately because I felt that each dish had big bold flavours, but together they sat heavy on my stomach which was getting full from so much food.

Frijoles puercos – the tender pieces of pork pulled apart with a fork melted in my mouth (Chef Jaier Tellez). This is the best version of pork and beans I’ve ever tasted.

Arroz silvestre con tasajo, pescado, chorizo y calabaza

Arroz silvestre con tasajo, pescado, chorizo y calabaza (Chef Jaier Tellez), looked like a simple rice dish, but was deceptively flavourful with little bits of meat, fish, chorizo and squash.

I was happy that the 5th course was apalate cleansing granita.

Granzinado de Jamaica y nieve de mezcal

Granzinado de Jamaica y nieve de mezcal (Chef Jaier Tellez)

I’m not a dessert person, and was going to have just one bite of each of the final dessert course just to get the flavours. But the chocolate danced with Oaxacan flavours while the banana felt like an indulgent childhood treat and I found myself spooning the plate clean.

Lingote de chocolate con bizcocho de almendra, platano de castilla, canella y pasilla mixe (Chef Odilon Garcia)

With my first of the “big meals” at Festival El Saber del Sabor done, I was extremely satisfied with the meal. Course after course we were served delightful dishes paired wonderfully with wine. I was a bit sad that the only chef to come up during my meal at Casa Oaxaca was Chef Tellez, because I would have liked to have thanked all 3 for my delicious, memorable and somewhat thought-provoking meal.

Looking a bit tired and overfed with Chef Tellez.

Looking a bit tired and overfed with Chef Tellez.

One big meal under my belt and I’m eager to see what the event at Origen will be like.

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