Before even taking a bite of his portobello chilaquiles, I admired chef Jeff Heineman for adding the dish to Grapeseed‘s menu. I admired his willingness to look to other (non-European) cultures for inspiration. I admired his guts in promoting a spicy dish in his “American bistro” in Bethesda, and I admired the sheer cheekiness of serving a traditional Mexican breakfast dish for dinner.
The plate that the waiter placed before me didn’t look much like the chilaquiles I remembered from Texas. Not that I expected it to, but still, I was slightly taken aback at the formality of Heineman’s dish. These were chilaquiles out on a prom date. A tidy, layered stack of fried tortillas, chopped portobellos, cheese, and red sauce (which included not one kind of pepper, but three: ancho, chipotle, and habanero) was partially submerged in a shallow bowl of piquant tomatillo sauce littered with cilantro leaves and white and yellow cheese crumbles. A tangle of fried red-onion straws sat atop this solid block of chilaquiles.
The first thing that hits your palate is the tart acidity of the tomatillo sauce, followed quickly by the heat, which is not inconsiderable. But once your taste buds settle in for the ride, you can start to savor the dish’s nuances —- the way the tartness of the tomatillo sauce plays off the spicy, sweetness of the red sauce (in some delightful tomato-on-tomato action), and the way the meaty bites of portobello give some much needed heft and resistance to an essentially mushy dish.
If there’s any one fault with Heineman’s chilaquiles, I’d point a bony (OK, an increasingly fatty) finger at its consistency. It has the body of tres leches. Part of that is just the nature of fried tortillas when they absorb liquid: They go all limp. Think of those nasty chips at the bottom of your nachos platter. Heineman has tried to address the problem with the addition of onion straws, but my straws were as soggy as the chilaquiles. Perhaps a sprinkling of tortilla strips on the chilaquiles near the end of the baking process would solve everything?
Changes are definitely coming to the dish, promises Heineman when I talked to him this afternoon. Little did I know before the call, but I ate his chilaquiles on Tuesday night, just one day after the dish made its debut. The chef, in other words, is still perfecting this very promising entree.