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“I want to go beyond Tex-Mex,” Chef Colt Taylor said. His Mexican restaurant, Los Charros Cantina in Centerbrook, takes the leap. “Mexico has diverse culinary regions, just like the U.S., but all we are familiar with is the food from the north along the border.”
Digging deep into Mexico’s culinary heritage, Taylor finds influences from native people, conquistadors, the Middle East and Pacific Rim trade all applied to ingredients from coastal, desert, mountainous and Caribbean climates. Taylor’s food is a rich, flavorful melange with a dash of coastal New England.
Los Charros has a large, family-friendly space with a menu of familiar favorites, but the restaurant also has an over-21 dining room with an intimate twenty-eight seats. You can order from the menu, but the showstopper is a five course (really seven) tasting menu for just $65.00.
Taylor takes traditional ingredients and presentations and applies classical European cooking techniques with exciting results. The evolving menu has recently included a Caviar Sope, Shrimp Ceviche, Lobster Barria, and 48-Hour Braised Wagyu Brisket. It’s pretty sophisticated Mexican food.
In New York, Cosme, a world-famous restaurant created by chef owner Enrique Olvera, is also creatively exploring Mexican cuisine with brilliant results. The swanky, contemporary design of the space doesn’t have a single cantina reference. The ingredients and descriptions are unmistakably Mexican, but these are tostadas, tacos and carnitas unlike any I’ve ever eaten. A tostada with morels and fresh peas ($29) shared the woodsy mushroom and garden-fresh pea flavors. Tender sliced octopus ($26), seasoned with pasilla peppers was huddled under a thatch of shaved sorrel.
It’s the kind of food that leads to discussion of the flavors.
Picture-perfect Tataki al Pastor (seared fish) ($35) was garnished with see-through-thin slices of jalapeño and pineapple along with a dollop of pineapple purée that stole the show. Duck Carnitas for two ($98) is the signature dish at Cosme. The magical boneless half duck had been flavorfully braised to fork tender and presented with its mahogany skin. The combination of duck, watermelon radish and cilantro with a choice of smoky mole and green pepper sauce raised the bar for carnitas.
As delicious as dinner was, it’s hard to believe that the best was yet to come: Corn Husk Meringue ($20) for dessert. A meringue shell, not unlike a pavlova, cradled a sweet corn filling with the flavor of corn pudding and the soft texture of mascarpone. Whipped cream lay in wait below the filling. The crunch of the meringue and the corn flavor refereed by the cream – oh my gosh!
I can see why Cosme is No. 22 on the “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.”
In Fairfield County, Chef Bill Taibe serves up creative Mexican fare inspired by his visits to Mexico City and the much-touted food destinations of Puebla and Oxacana at his popular Westport restaurant, Don Memo. Operating year-round in the old city hall, the restaurant enjoys a spacious plaza in front for outdoor dining.
Taibe’s cooking bears the authentic stamp of personal experience. Colorful, boldly flavored salsas and moles flavor each dish. A cluster of shared plates makes a colorful and tempting tabletop display. Among our favorites were Tuna Crudo tostado ($26) with habaneros and chipotles supplying well-balanced heat. Tender Carnitas ($24) with a bowl full of pickled vegetables, and Camerones ($26) in a pink crema were delicious choices from the taco placero menu. Marsha was taken with the Picada ($14), a salad of evenly cut chunks of cucumber, tomatillo and avocado in a bright green vinaigrette.
Thanks to chefs like Taylor, Olvera and Taibe, the trend is moving up to more sophisticated cooking from the rich and diverse culture of Mexico. Better ingredients, dishes out of the mainstream and the attention of accomplished chefs are expanding the idea of Mexican food.