Sylvia Casares Showcases Versatility at Inaugural Comida Con Vino

You don't have to ask me twice to attend a wine dinner, and when I heard that Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen was hosting its first-ever comida con vino, I was eager to see what Casares had in store.

Well, more specifically, I wondered if there would be anything else besides enchiladas. Not that I don't adore her enchiladas. With just under 20 varieties under her belt, Casares could easily construct several courses comprising only enchiladas appropriately grouped to complement the Chilean wines on hand courtesy of Morande USA.

What differentiates a good chef, however, from a great one is the wisdom and ability to avoid playing to your advantage when you have the attention of a large audience. Step out of the box, tie your favored hand behind your back, etc., etc., and show the folks you're more than what you're famous for.

Not that Casares completely eschewed her signature dish in designing the wine dinner menu. But she made me forget, at least for a few hours, that the Enchilada Queen was doing the cooking for the exquisite culinary versatility she demonstrated by constructing more than ten unique small dishes, each of which added new depth to the wines with which they were paired.

As well-heeled guests trickled into the vibrant dining room decorated in soft reds and whites, the staff served small pours of Morande's 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, whose crisp vitality wonderfully balanced the passed appetizer of picamole, a rich mixture of ripe avocado and pico de gallo atop a lightly fried cracker. The first course introduced a bolder, fruitier white in the form of a 2009 Chardonnay. Its strong peach and apple notes provided a lovely botanical background to the trifecta of taquito de queso de campo, enchiladita de calabacita, and mesquite grilled sea bass. I particularly enjoyed the sea bass, so perfectly cooked that it flaked into divine juicy slices with the touch of a fork, and the squash blossom enchilada dressed with a creamy poblano sauce.

When I was served the third course, I wondered if the alcohol had impaired my vision, for in front of me sat what looked to be a glistening, decadent mound of....macaroni and cheese? But what I tasted was nothing of the many varieties I've tried in and around Houston; the soft noodles were enveloped in a coating of piquant cheese whose initially subtle heat rose to a crescendo with each passing bite (and I regret there weren't more). Lest this dish be relegated to the likes of a Luby's side dish, I suggest renaming it pasta con queso or something to that effect.

That wasn't all for course #3. Turns out the pasta con queso was accompaniment for what was by far the most succulent assemblage of the dinner: grilled skirt steak, mesquite grilled quail, and taquito de cabrito asado. Of that trio, it was difficult to pick my favorite, but hold a rifle to my head and my answer would be the quail. The bird's delicate flavor was amazingly enhanced by some smoky seasonings, and its brittle bones simply fell away from the juicy meat. No use trying to be dignified and use a fork; I did as I saw Casares do and ate with the tips of my fingers. A few sips of Morande's reserve Carmenere provided additional robust tastes of cherry, leading me to wonder where that varietal had been all my life.

Casares did return to her roots for the fourth course, an "extravaganza" of three distinctly delicious enchiladas: mole poblano, south Texas cheese with chile gravy, and carnitas con salsa verde. The fact that I have tried all of these enchiladas before was comforting; each forkful reminded me of pleasant past dinners at Sylvia's as well as emphasized how Casares has taken this Tex-Mex staple to a new level of sophistication.

By now I had been dining for more than two hours. Usually at this point in a tasting, I'm rocking back and forth like a four-year-old on too much Kool-Aid, but that night good conversation from my friendly companions (a few old friends, some strangers) made the time fly. The servers filled our final glasses with a heavy splash of a sweet but not syrupy (thank you, God) Morande dessert wine, the 2008 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, and laid down petite slices of flan garnished with whipped cream and strawberries. While it's not difficult to nail down the flavor of flan, texture is a whole different story. Believe me when I say Casares has managed to produce an absolutely perfect custard square with an eggy soft interior and firmer and sweeter roof and ceiling.

The evening was not without its hitches: irregular time between courses and some sound issues for the Morande spokesperson's lecture. But these kinks were few and are no doubt easily remedied. The creativity Casares demonstrated in designing this dinner proved The Enchilada Queen has more up her sleeve than her title might suggest.

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Joanna O'Leary