In the movie industry — where Tom Brandt spent most of his life, as a theater owner — there’s a fixed product.
You negotiate for a film (and make very little off it). People come. You click a button to start the movie. You sell popcorn and soda (at insanely jacked-up prices). People leave.
“It’s not brain surgery,” Tom admits.
The restaurant industry — his current passion, as owner of several restaurants (including the very popular Oaxaca, in Compo Acres Shopping Center) — is not brain surgery either.
But there are many more moving targets than at a multiplex.
“People want to be seated immediately,” Tom notes. “Whether they came in early or late, the customer is always right.
“Making food is an art. Human beings make that art every day. One person thinks it’s too spicy. The next person wants the spices kicked up a notch. ”
In the movie business, Tom says, “once a show starts, you sit back.”
In a restaurant, “you’re always on your toes.”
Tom and his staff are on their toes enough that — in just a few months — Oaxaca is one of Westport’s go-to places for fine dining.
It’s not the only Mexican restaurant here — in fact, Tom loves Viva Zapata. But his place has carved out a special niche. It serves elegant, creative cuisine from Mexico’s southernmost province.
It’s in a strip mall — not nearly as funky as Viva’s — but like that streetside Saugatuck spot, Oaxaca is fun. The decor includes lizards, a fruit-and-vegetable stand, and 2 enormous “community tables” that encourage mixing and mingling.
The mixers — and the regular patrons, and those who come to hear Friday night live music — rave about the fresh salsa. The homemade mole sauces. The squash soup. The way-tender beef baracoa (served in parchment paper). The ceviche Veracruz, duck confit tacos, and desserts like pepita-scented flan and ultra-moist tres leches.
Plus perfect margaritas.
You might not expect all that from an Indian head chef named Prasad Chirnomula. (He’s also the mastermind behind Tom’s other Oaxaca — a major player on the New Haven dining scene — and his Thali restaurants in New Canaan, Ridgefield and New Haven.)
But, Tom points out, traditional Mexican cuisine is extremely close to Indian food. Both are heavily influenced by spices, complex sauces, and plenty of pre-roasting.
Though Compo Acres is not exactly Restaurant Row, Westporters have found Oaxaca. “It’s an excellent crowd,” Tom says. “People here really appreciate their food. They’re keenly aware of food quality and service.”
Oaxaca benefits from its proximity to the Westport Country Playhouse. The restaurant draws pre-theater diners, and has catered several events there.
That connection is important to Tom. He’s spent over a decade on the advisory board of the American Theater Wing, and votes on the Tony Awards.
Tom’s family owned and operated movie theaters for 3 generations. They owned over 100 screens, including the Trans-Lux chain. Tom spent several years as CEO of theaters in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains. He also owned a jazz club at the South Street Seaport that booked Lionel Hampton, Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck.
Food, music and entertainment are constants in Tom’s life. With all that he’s done, he’s learned to see the big picture.
Which is why he’s so excited about Oaxaca — but also about new ventures in Westport.
“The Blu Parrot will be great,” he says, referring to the live-music venue opening soon at the site of the former Jasmine restaurant in Saugatuck.
“The more restaurants we have, the more energy there is in town. And the more energy, the more people will come here.”
Including, of course, to the fine-dining-but-down-home, Mexican-with-a-touch-of-Indian, fun and entertaining Oaxaca, hidden in plain sight in a Post Road strip mall.