Mexico / Peak Experience

2 for 2 at El Destilado, Oaxaca

Every so often when I travel, I eat a meal that plays with my palate and pushes my mind in such a way that I leave the meal with feelings of regret because I know I’d only scratched the surface of the talents of the cook/chef. There are restaurants, little hole in the walls, market vendors and even street carts all over the world that stick out in my memory as places I wish I’d been able to visit more than once on my visit to whatever city I was in. But this rarely happens because my time in each place was too short and my food list too long for me to have repeats.

Over the years, I have changed my travel habits by re-visiting cities or going to others a week at a time. This has given me the opportunity to return to a few of these special places. But no matter where I travel, I always leave with a handful of great experiences that sit in my food memory as places I long to return to with the hopes that my meal will live up to the memory.

In Barcelona, a city of thousands of tapas bars, I loved Paco Merlago so much that I returned my last night for a second visit rather than take a chance on an untried option. Last year in Paris, I was able to return to Les Cocottes, which I’d discovered a few years before that, and my meal the second time was just as good as the first. In Japan, I have so many places built into my of memory bank that I never have enough time to return to return to everything, and it’s almost becoming the same in Oaxaca.

Knowing that Oaxaca is on my travel agenda each year has been a blessing. I have eaten so many peak experience meals in Oaxaca and I love that each time I return, I have the opportunity to repeat these indulgences. I am getting to the point where I have so many places on this “return” list that I don’t room for anything new, so when I do try something new, I rarely waste it on a whim.

My first dinner at El Destilado was late into my week-long trip this year. I enjoyed each dish that evening for its thoughtfulness, delicious ingredients and creativity. As I progressed through the meal, I knew there was some real talent in the kitchen and when I finished, I immediately felt regret because I knew I’d only scratched the surface of what El Destilado had to offer.

I only had 2 more dinners in Oaxaca for my trip, and was I was booked for my final evening’s meal at Origen, but I still had nothing planned for the next night. I wondered if it would be overkill to have dinner at El Destilado 2 nights in a row, especially knowing that I had so many places on my Oaxaca list that I wanted to return to and even a few new places I thought I should check out. But as I weighed my options, I realized I didn’t have anywhere I wanted to go to that I believed would be better than having the boys from El Destilado deliver a blow-out meal for me. So I’d put my name down to return the next night for the full meal deal, asking for them to “knock my socks off”. I jokingly threw the gauntlet down, but was strangely confident that the boys would deliver.

I talk about the “boys” of El Destilado, but they should be more properly introduced at this point as Jason Cox, Joseph Gilbert and Julio Aguilera.

Joseph and Julio originally met a few years ago in the kitchen of then 2* (now 3*) Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco. Julio moved on from there to become the opening chef at La Urbana, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, where he first visited Oaxaca for research. Julio returned to San Francisco with such great stories about Oaxaca, that Joseph decided to “move to Oaxaca to learn Spanish, study the food and culture and drink potentially lethal amounts of mezcal”. His idea was to learn as much as he could and eventually make his way back to San Francisco or Seattle to open a Mexican-inspired restaurant.

In Oaxaca, Joseph landed at Origen (which through Chef Rodolfo Castellanos is how I found El Destilado), and also immersed himself in the bar/mezcal scene with his roommate Jason Cox, from Indiana,  who was in Oaxaca to learn more about the mezcal scene. They together, decided the best way to stay in Oaxaca was to open a bar/restaurant and thus El Destilado was born.

Their space, was the first they looked at and they knew it would suit their needs well. “A fire, a couple of stove tops and an oven” was the bare minimum for Chef Joseph and within this limited environment, he’s been challenging himself with his creativity. Their kitchen is a continuous work in progress, but I will vouch for the fact that they are serving some magical things out of their simple space.

Joseph and Jason reached out to Julio shortly before my visit to El Destilado to invite him to make the move to Oaxaca. Julio was looking for a new challenge and wanted to get back into the kitchen, so he decided that moving to Oaxaca would give him just that. Juilo had only been at El Destilado a few weeks when I dined there.

For my second dinner at El Destilado, I was seated at the back bar to have a better view of the kitchen which also helped me engage with the boys while they were doing working through service. After (unsuccessfully) struggling to keep up with taking notes at dinner the night before, I’d asked if I could be given a list of the dishes or menu at the end of the night, to which I was told, “no problem”. My only stress from the evening gone, and it was time to get to eating.

"El destilado Oaxaca"

Although the menu I received from Chef Julio was very detailed, a description of this first taste was not included. I remembered it to be citrus spicy and quite a refreshing first bite.

"El Destilado Oaxaca pulque"

Pulque – pulque ice, ginger, basil

IMG_6908

I’m a sucker for anything icy, so this was right up my alley.

"El Destilado Oaxaca huevo"

Huevo – topped egg, puree de frijol, lime crema, chorizo

"El Destilado Oaxaca huevo egg"

I loved the whimsical and interactive touches in the meal. I also loved this dish with all of the savory flavours hidden underneath the creamy top.

Oaxaca El Destilado Agua chile

"El Destilado Oaxaca Agua chile"

Agua chile – citrus jalapeno serrano broth, huachinango, avocado

"El Destilado Oaxaca smoke Juilo Aguilera"

Quite a few of the dishes from both nights had “smoked” components, and I curious how they were achieving this in their limited space. The fire and smoke pumping out in the narrow space between 2 buildings was impressive. And I’m sure not even close to a North American by-law code.

"El Destilado Oaxaca pescado"

Pescado – huachinango, huitlachoche, lemon smoked crema was delicate yet complex. This was a gold star dish in a night of many stars.

"el destilado oaxaca chef joseph gilbert"

"Oaxaca El destilado pasta"

Pasta – spaghetti, xo chorizo sauce and botarga was another favourite of the night. It reminded me of a dish I could have placed from many different countries, but was perfectly Oaxacan.

"El Destilado Oaxaca Chef Julio Aguilera"

"El destilado Oaxaca cebolla"

Cebolla – smoked onion soup, 63° huevo, citrus thyme onions, and goat cheese foam looked like a simple white on white preparation, but the flavours were “pow, zing” in my mouth. I’m so biased in favor of any dish that includes a luscious oozing egg yolk.

"Oaxaca El Destilado pollo"

Calabaza y pollo – smoked veg, roasted tenderloin, brown butter, yogurt and honey

"El Destilado Oaxaca julio aguilera"

"El Destilado mezcal mango passionfruit"

Mezcal – manilla mango, mexicanito gel, passionfruit puree reminded me of a Chinese mango pudding, but boozier.

El Destilado Oaxaca carnitas

“El destilado oaxaca carnitas julio aguilera” Carnitas – carnitas estilo Michoacan, nasterium flowers, onion, tostada

"El destilado oaxaca carnitas julio aguilera"

By this point in the meal I was becoming very full but I kept picking at the strands of meat because I couldn’t stop myself.

"Oaxaca El Destilado cake"

Cake – Citrus pound cake, lemon gel, mandarin curd

"El Destilado Oaxaca wild strawberries"

I talked to the chefs about their process of choosing the menu and was told that they went to the local markets almost every day. But on the day we were there, someone had dropped off a box of white strawberries which at first glance looked unripe, but at first taste I found them to be super sweet. The box was left on the bar as the next dishes were served and I’ll admit, I couldn’t keep these little beauties out of my mouth.

"El Destilado Oaxaca strawberry"

Berries wild – vanilla puree, wild berries

"El destialdo chocolate"

Chocolate – chilhuacle chocolate, donut hole, red mole jam

"El Destilado Oaxaca julio aguilera jason cox"

Chef Julio working on my menu to take home with Jason

My first meal at El Destilado was very good. On my second night’s visit, I was happy to proclaim that I was served one of my top meals of 2015.  In the words of Chef Rodolfo Castellanos of Origen, “these guys are killing it”.

After all of my gushing praise, I will now come clean. When Rodolfo originally told me that 3 American guys were doing great things at El Destilado, my thought was, “why would I go to Oaxaca to eat food made by Americans”? With so little time each year in the city, I am careful with my choices which is why I was hesitant about El Destilado. But I’m glad Rodolfo kept pressing, because these guys are doing great things. From an excellent mezcal and beer menu up front to amazing, flavourful dishes coming from the back, El Destilado is a winner.

"El Destilado Oaxaca Juilo Aguilera Joseph Gilbert Susy Bando"

Thanks to Chefs Julio and Joseph for knocking my socks off as promised!

 

El DestiladoCalle 5 de Mayo 409, Oaxaca Centro

 

 

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