Mexican Flan

Mexican Flan, orange scented custard with carmalized sugar, is one of the desserts offered at Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven. (Cloe Poisson, / May 26, 2011)

In the southern half of the state, Prasad Chirnomula's name is synonymous with upscale Indian cuisine. As the owner of five Thali restaurants in New Haven and Fairfield County, he understands why his latest spot, Oaxaca Kitchen, has garnered a lot of attention.

"[People think] 'He's an Indian chef, can he do Mexican?'" Chirnomula say. "So that's been the challenge."

Once you walk through the door, it's clear you're not in for a generic Tex-Mex experience. The menu and the décor meld elements of traditional Oaxacan cooking, artwork and culture at every turn, reflecting more than a year's worth of the chef's mindful travel and study in the southwestern Mexican state.

Ironically, Chirnomula says he was never a big fan of Mexican food. "I enjoyed the chips and salsa part, but [the] entrees were all the same. And every plate went back full to the kitchen."

But when he traveled to Oaxaca on vacation and tasted the authentic dishes made by home cooks there, he decided he'd bring a gourmet Mexican restaurant to downtown New Haven.

Once he saw the available spot on College Street, "it all clicked together," he says. The building is owned by Yale University Properties, which also owns the building where Chirnomula's Thali Too resides. It helped that he'd been a trustworthy tenant already.

"I came back from Oaxaca and spoke to my landlords. I said, 'If we can work together, and you can give me enough time, there's a lot of study and travel involved. I'll need some time to work on it.' "And they said, 'We trust you.'"

Over the next year, Chirnomula, his architect and his designer traveled regularly to Oaxaca, picking up ideas and inspiration through interactions with locals. They paid close attention to Oaxacans' daily routines, particularly to their resourceful habit of saving and reusing items like bottles and old furniture.

Back at the new restaurant, they tried to re-create that rustic charm, using small touches like native hand-carved animal sculptures along with larger efforts, including a ceiling designed to look like an old billboard for Tecate beer. Though it looks like it's been by a highway for 30 years, its weather-torn, faded appearance was created by the designer.

"We wanted to give [our guests] the feeling of this old style of Oaxaca," Chirnomula says. "We didn't want high-gloss, finished pieces. … "We wanted to make it look like it's been there since before we got here."

Though most associate him with Thali and Indian food, Chirnomula says there are plenty of shared ingredients in each cuisine — tomatoes, garlic and spices such as cumin, cloves and cinnamon. Both styles of cooking feature chilies, charcoal-grilled meats and fresh breads. "That's what excited me."

Chirnomula was intent on keeping Oaxaca Kitchen's menu as authentic as possible, focusing attention on just nine entrees. The region is known for seven varieties of mole sauces, and the restaurant serves several of them — pistachio, amarillo (yellow), rojo (red) and pepita (pumpkin seed.) Other entrees enjoy a clean presentation: grilled hanger steak with Oaxacan black bean sauce and sweet corn; pork tenderloin posole; chile rellenos with queso fresco.

"My approach is very simple, but it's very flavor-forward," Chirnomula says.

The appetizer list creatively highlights much of these flavors. A gazpacho recipe incorporates toasted pumpkin seeds, tomato-avocado tartare, jalapeño oil — and a scoop of red-pepper sorbet. Mango sorbet also shows up in the ceviche Veracruz, with poached shrimp and jumbo lump crab, its bright sweetness cutting through the dish's citrus-and-vinegar tang.

There's Oaxacan squash and poblano cream soup, lobster enchiladas and more jumbo lump crab with blue corn, charred tomato coulis and mango-papaya relish. On the more traditional side, there's tableside guacamole, vegetable quesadillas and a two-taco plate with diner's choice of fish, chicken, beef, pork or shrimp.

Besides lunch and dinner, there's a prix-fixe Sunday brunch menu and an "anytime" menu of appetizers and quick bites like a buffalo chorizo burger. The bar, serving margaritas with fresh lime, house-infused pineapple-chipotle tequila blanco and tamarind mango purée, attracts a high-energy crowd, Chirnomula says.

Though he's considered restaurant locations from West Hartford to Manhattan, Chirnomula is glad he chose the Elm City for this latest project. "New Haven is just a great destination for dining," he says. " I love [the city], and I think it likes me."

>>Oaxaca Kitchen is at 228 College St., New Haven. It's open Monday through Thursday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner. On Friday and Saturday, lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and dinner is served from 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 4 to 9:30 p.m. (A limited bar menu is available between lunch and dinner.) Information: 203-859-5774 or

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