Oaxaca — the Compo Acres Shopping Center restaurant featuring cuisine from Mexico’s southernmost province — has closed.
Oaxaca was in business for a bit over a year. It succeeded Thali, an Indian restaurant. For a long time before that, it was the pan-Asian TaiPan.
Compo Shopping Center — across the Post Road — is reflected in the glass door of Oaxaca. A simple sign announces the news.
The dining scene in Westport constantly changes. 323 opened recently — after many delays — to good reviews, in the spot formerly occupied by Bogey’s.
Shake Shack has stabilized the location that for years saw an ever-changing cast of cuisines. Everything was there, from a steak chain to Mongolian.
Some places — like the corner of Post Road and Myrtle Avenue — evolve from restaurants (Glynn’s, etc.) to commercial uses (it’s now a real estate office). Others go the opposite way: 5 Guys spent years as a Western Auto, before morphing into a girls’ clothing store.
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.
Chips, a margarita, and Tom Brandt.
“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.
Tom Brandt is proud of Oaxaca’s decor — including the hubcap-and-bottle lighting fixtures.
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.
Every Oaxaca patron gets a lizard to take home.
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.
First there was pan-Asian. In February 2010 TaiPan went Indian.
Now Thali is changing cuisine. On or around January 12, the Compo Acres restaurant becomes Oaxaca Kitchen — a high-end Mexican bar and restaurant.
But the owner — Prasad Chirnomula — stays the same. Westport’s Oaxaca may be only the 2nd Indian-owned Mexican restaurant in the country.
Prasad’s New Haven Oaxaca might be the 1st.
Besides those 2, he owns Thalis in New Canaan, Ridgefield and 2 in New Haven (the 2nd one there is called Thali Too, ho ho).
Standing outside his old/new restaurant this morning, as the renovation progressed, Prasad said that perhaps having so many Indian restaurants in the area (including his own, not far away) hurt business.
But, he says, Westport is ready for a “high-end Mexican” place.
¡Buen provecho! ¡Buen apetito!
(Click here for menus from the New Haven Oaxaca restaurant.)
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