Cavalino Tequila Tasting Dinner at Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

Several weeks ago Sylvia Casares kicked off the first of several planned tasting dinners with her terrific "comida con vino" featuring the wines of Morande USA. The second dinner (in what I hope continues to be a diverse and exciting series at Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen) paired Cavalino tequilas with more innovative dishes from The Enchilada Queen.

Casares also made some welcome changes to the format of this tasting dinner, beginning with the seating configurations. Whereas at the comida con vino, patrons were seated in long tables aligned horizontally to facilitate a group lecture, at the tequila tasting, diners sat at small individual round tables.

Cavalino representative Jesús Antuna approached each table separately to introduce the tequila pairings. Not only did this format provide a more intimate atmosphere, it also enabled us to engage in more of an educational dialogue with Antuna, who spent a generous amount of time providing background for the spirits and answering questions.

Before dinner, patrons were offered the choice of two tequila libations, a straight-up "aguafrestini" and an on-the-rocks cantaloupe cocktail. Both were delightfully light and delicious, thanks to their agua fresca bases, but the watermelon aguafrestini stole the show with its subtle sweetness and ethereal fruit notes.

With our appetites properly whetted, we dug into the first course of coctel de camarón. Casares's take on shrimp cocktail is more delicate than the version you'd find in a standard seafood shack. Petite prawns marinate in a mild tomato sauce topped with chunks of overripe avocado that add a mild vegetable fattiness. It's a dish that is simultaneously creamy, briny, sweet and crunchy thanks to a side of crackers. A near-perfect appetizer that could only improve, I think, with the substitution of some lightly fried tortilla triangles for the saltines.

During the second and third courses, we enjoyed a flight of complimentary tequilas, beginning with a tequila blanco. I was prepared to stifle a cough as I finished my blanco sample, for although I have done many a tequila shot in my time enjoy tequila responsibly, in the raw it tends to tickle my throat. Well, obviously, I've been drinking the wrong stuff. Cavalino's blanco is sharp but with a smooth, almost sweet finish that eliminates the need to clear your throat even after a straight-up serving. Such unadulterated quality is due in part to Cavalino's small-batch preparation and home-grown (literally) ingredients: The company cultivates its own agave plants.

Round two of the flight, the reposado, was unlike any tequila I've ever encountered. "Winter," "gingerbread" and "fireplace" are not usually words I associate with tequila, yet all three immediately came to mind when I tasted the cinnamon and ginger overtones of this lovely autumnal spirit. The reposado was thus especially fitting with our course of bacon-wrapped quail breast, mesquite grilled beef fajita and pork tenderloin (emphasis mine), for the spice of the alcohol balanced the bold seasoning of the beef, pork and quail. Casares's claim to fame may be her enchiladas, but the woman certainly knows her way fowl. The addition of a bacon casing put this dish over the top. (Dear Sylvia, please put a dish on your menu that consists only of a large bowl of bacon-wrapped quail bites and a side of some sort of mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. Love, Joanna.)

Just before our course of enchiladas from north and south of the Texas-Mexico border, we sampled Cavalino's premium añejo tequila. "This is the tequila for a whiskey drinker" was Antuna's appropriate introduction for the añejo, whose darker, smoky notes would indeed appeal to those usually more inclined toward the grain mash beverages of the Emerald Isle. Though bold, the añejo, like those tequilas that preceded it, failed to produce that annoying cough reflex, thanks again to Cavalino's oxygenation processing that reduces the "pepper finish" present in other brands.

The enchiladas that followed were as diverse and complex in flavor as the tequila flight. A crab meat enchilada with a creamy seafood sauce was a rich contrast to its neighboring "Mexico City" enchilada stuffed with chicken and covered in a deep mole, while the "Refugio" enchilada evoked more traditional Tex-Mex flavors with its fiery chili gravy and thick blanket of cheese. I've had all of these enchiladas before at Sylvia's, but tasting them the third, even fourth, time, never ceases to remind how skilled Casares is when it comes to crafting each particular enchilada into a work of art.

We finished with Casares's signature dessert, a chocolate tres leches that makes you wonder what fool ever thought it was a good idea to use vanilla instead of cocoa. With my belly full of food and my liver on overdrive, I was strapped to come up with an adequate description of the cake's marvelous texture. Looking over my notes the next day, I read "a wet chocolate sponge never tasted so good."

Well, there you have it, folks. While I can't assert a tasting dinner at Sylvia's Enchilada kitchen will improve your powers of articulation in prose, I do promise it will convince you there's more to tequila than margaritas and that you'll leave with a greater appreciation for the depth and dimension of Casares's cooking. Here's hoping more are on the docket.

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Joanna O'Leary