No, not the French Impressionist painter. Not that Cézanne. Sazón, the snappy restaurante nuevo cocinar del Mexicano on Shelby Street, with a name that when translated from the Spanish has any number of meanings depending on the context – seasoning, flavor, ripeness, maturity. (The Urban Dictionary translates the term: “A mixture of spices typically orange that comes in little packets and is secret weapon of Spanish food.” Huh? Who knew?)
You gotta love a restaurant that has “Mezcaleria” and “Tequileria” in its headline – a drinking establishment with a food problem? – and just inside the door and down a step to the right the bar is classically umbrous and intimate in warm woods.
Sazón promotes a number of adventures in mixology and a world-class back wall of tequilas and mezcals (including Ron Cooper’s Del Maguay mezcal, with profound Ken Price labels), and a selection of nearly 100 wines from throughout Europe and the Americas (they’ve a penchant for wines of the Valle de Guadalupe region of northern Baja). In short, serious stuff – and with a very good looking bar menu, you might not make it into the main room.
If you do, be prepared. Not quite over the top Fellini-in-Mexico shimmering mirrors, a glittering Guadalajara chandelier, over a dozen striking lamps situated throughout, Frida Kahlo portraits, mural-sized paintings. So dramatic you half expect to see George R.R. Martin directing proceedings. (And hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that the man himself in larger-than-life red-suspendered splendor holding court at a corner table full of revelers? It is.)
Since it opened in 2015, Sazón has been under the capable direction of chef Fernando Olea, formerly of Mexico City and of Santa Fe since 1991.
Olea makes his definition of a “sazón” known immediately once one is seated. Mole. Five saucers of his unique mole creations are presented before a drink order is even made. Make sure to ask for the warm corn mini tortillas and not the hard crackers offered.
There are as many moles as ingredients and as there are stories of its inception. You could write a book. Maybe it was first prepared from nothing by poor nuns in early colonial Puebla, but the term is derived from the Nahuatl molli, meaning “sauce,” and chilmolli for chili sauce. Coincidentally, the Portuguese molho, means “sauce.”
Mole sauces generally contain a fruit, chile pepper, chocolate, nut and spices like black pepper, cinnamon and cumin. Some have more than 30 ingredients, up to five varieties of chile alone, and are as distinctive as the person making them.
Olea’s moles include a classic dark chocolate poblano, most widely known outside Mexico; a mild, dusky red coloradito; a picante mole verde; and a savory mole pipian (pumpkin seed). A number of Olea’s salsas and moles are available for purchase.
Sazón’s menu is deliberately small as this is about the role of the sauces discerningly paired with game, fish and meats, fresh and locally produced as much as possible.
For starters, we shied away from the Oaxaqueños ($17), baby grasshoppers (chapulines) infused with olive oil, citrus and chile served with avocado on mini corn tortillas (not kidding). Next time. However, would that love were as sweet as Olea’s signature Sopa de Amor ($16). It is strictly suggested by the very attentive server that one does not stir, shake, spindle or fold, as the elixir – crabmeat in a cream of poblano, with amaretto foam – is so multiflavored as not to be disturbed before eating. One spoonful and we got it – bam!
How do you follow that? We toned things down, not with a selection of duck with the mole poblano, but with a classic pork loin (market price) – two juicy, perfectly pink, but not rare, pieces – with a splash of mellow, earthy coloradito mole, jasmine rice, crispy cabbage and green beans. Very nice.
And room for a cobbler of fresh berries ($13) with whipped cream and a scooplet of vanilla ice cream. Not enough ice cream, but amongst the several extraordinary choices offered – think chocolate! – it was definitely the most moderate choice.
The theater of Sazón provided more than enough postprandial entertainment.
A mezcal digestivo, perhaps?