Mole needs a better stage in the Big Apple. While my West Coast colleagues have found that there are virtually no bad versions of the dish in Los Angeles, the same cannot be said for New York, where it’s not uncommon to encounter mole as a one-note sauce — sugary slop atop enchiladas.
There are exceptions. One of them is the Oaxaca-inspired Claro in Gowanus. The restaurant, awarded three stars by my colleague Robert Sietsema in January, serves a serious red mole.
“We have to stop referring to mole as a sauce. We have sauce, but mole is the dish,” famed chef Patricia Quintana said of the quintessential Mexican foodstuff, a preparation that harkens to the time of the Aztecs. The Southwestern state of Oaxaca in particular is home to countless varieties; they’re laboriously forged from chiles, spices, and tomatoes, thickened with seeds and nuts, and cooked in cazuelas until they take on the color of sun baked bricks or roadside tar. Moles often employ stewed turkey or other affordable proteins in supporting roles, but really, the star is the dark, aromatic gravy.
At Claro, chef T.J. Steele begins the process nearly three days out. He blends tomatoes, anchos, guajillos, almonds, sesame, pecans, lard, cinnamon, sugar, and too many other ingredients to list; cooks them down to the texture of wet sand; and loosens up the mixture with pork stock during service. The color is as dark as blood sausage. The mouthfeel is stunning; it’s unmistakably smooth, but packs a level of tannins that recalls a well-steeped tea. A touch of sugar softens things up, and then the chiles kick in, the low grade sting — and gentle whiff of cinnamon — lasts a full minute after consumption. A powerfully acidic salad of apple, spinach, and hazelnuts wipes the palate clean.
The only flaw is that Claro tries to make the forgettable cheeks the star of the dish. There’s more pork than sauce on the plate, and while I can’t claim to be an expert on mole-to-meat-ratios, Steele would be showing a stronger hand if he inverted the setup, or quite frankly did away with the animal protein altogether, a path taken by Daniela Soto-Innes at Cosme. There, it’s an experience akin to dining at a great French restaurant and asking for no steak, only sauce. And if anyone thinks that’s an unfair comparison, that’s correct: The French can’t make sauces as complex and delicious as mole. Claro’s masterpiece is no exception.
The mole is the dish, not the pork cheeks. That aside, it’s still a stunner of a preparation, which is why I’m calling Claro’s $23 red mole a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).