By Jane Bauer
Part of me doesn’t want to tell you about this place. I mean, I don’t even know you; maybe you’re the type of person who enjoys speaking patronizingly to the wait staff, maybe you will sneer at the unfamiliar herbs or you won’t appreciate the delicate mixture of flavours or just maybe you will love it and tell too many people.
My husband, daughter and I had just finished a satisfying lunch nearby when we wandered into Origen to have a peek and maybe a glass of vino before ending a very culinary filled week in Oaxaca City. Origen is the creation of Chef Rodolfo Castellanos- part restaurant, part cooking school, it had been mentioned to us by another Oaxacan foodie but in a blasé kind of way. Located in a beautiful historical building the décor is sweet- Parisian sweet; bright colored furniture against white walls and modern Danish-style lamps are paired with country tables. The menu was presented by a gracious and smiling waiter and although we had just eaten, it was decided that we should try something- after all, everything was so pleasant.
My first encounter with the beef carpaccio topped with tortilla ash vinaigrette, lime, chile de agua and artichoke chips was like accidentally touching the hand of your new handsome neighbour as you reach for the mail; it made me blush. When the plate was licked clean it was unanimous that we had to try something else…. confit suckling goat, yellow squash puree, capers, raisins and spiced carrots. This dish made me regret sharing and by the time we got to sampling the dessert of chocolate and chile pasilla fondant beignets, fruit compote and lemon verbena ice cream, my husband, daughter and I were watching the movement of each other’s spoons like they were pistols in a Clint Eastwood showdown. At this point, I would not have told you about this place nor invited you for dinner.
Days later I was still thinking about the food. I had to go back! What is it that makes this place so good? Sitting down with chef Rodolfo Castellanos I start to get an idea of what. Origen’s mouth-watering menu reflects his experience. Growing up in Oaxaca, his first taste for the restaurant business was his mother’s comedor economico; inexpensive homemade comfort food. Modifying and elevating traditional food is a brave endeavour that when done well creates perfect bite after perfect bite that is new but at the same time familiar. When done badly ‘new cuisine’ can leave you feeling duped by novelty and cheap imitations. In a city where you can get a delicious homemade Oaxacan comida corrida for 50 pesos, the high end dinner version better be good. Although Castellanos is only 31 years old, the diversity of his training shows.
“When you are from Oaxaca you think only about leaving. Life here can be difficult, work opportunities and the tools for growth are limited. It took me ten years but I always had the intention of coming back and doing something here, back to my roots.” says Castellanos.
His food reflects the five years he spent working at Jardinière in San Francisco learning about French California cuisine as well as the year in Monaco and Rome. This experience is the perfect recipe for Origen, the 50 seat restaurant that he opened last year a block away from Oaxaca’s historical zocalo in a space he shares with his wife who gives cooking classes.
“The menu is seasonal, using quality local products, I am constantly changing and experimenting. I want to offer well trained service and high quality food in a casual environment.” says Castellanos.
Before service the staff eats family style- Castellanos is a chef (actually his business card modestly refers to him as a cook) who works alongside his team rather than above them. As such, they imbue his philosophy and offer a delicious pretentious-free honest experience. On my last visit there is a couple sitting silently at the next table. The waiter serves the woman a steaming bowl. I watch as she takes her first sip. As she licks her lips, she raises her head and looks at her partner in surprise. She has a mischievous smile as she leans in conspiratorially across the table towards him and I can see her whisper, almost like she doesn’t want anyone to know, “es que esta muy rico….it’s just that it is so delicious.” And it is.
Hidalgo 820, Oaxaca, Oaxaca