The Southfield Store: Oaxacan nights ... in New Marlborough

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NEW MARLBOROUGH — Many Berkshire County restaurants tout farm-to-table, but how many can also brag about ingredients delivered from more than 2,000 miles away?

Every Thursday night from mid-May through the end of October, The Southfield Store holds Oaxacan nights, offering a special menu that celebrates a Mexican state with a rich culinary history. The reason? Its executive chef, Gustavo Perez, hails from Oaxaca City, so he can not only draw from his mother's regional recipes, but also import some of their most critical elements from her. For example, the dry peppers used for Perez's black mole — Oaxaca is famous for seven variations of the sauce — were grown in his homeland.

"I feel like it's the most authentic Mexican," Perez said of Oaxacan nights, comparing it to other Berkshires competitors.

Of course, ingredients alone don't make food stand out, especially the mole. Finding the right blend of peppers and spices, and nuts and chocolate is vital to crafting the perfect sauce.

"Cooking mole is an art form," said Meredith Kennard, who owns and operates The Southfield Store with her husband, Peter Platt, on a recent Thursday night.

And, according to Kennard, it's one Perez has mastered since Oaxacan nights began in 2007, when Perez became chef at The Southfield Store. Kennard didn't have to urge this reporter to try the black mole with the carne asada, a marinated skirt steak served over a bed of black beans with rice, scallions, peppers, guacamole, salsa and a side of tortillas. The sauce is more naturally poured over the dry-aged duck breast, roasted chicken breast or roasted pork loin, but it still paired nicely with the beef (or as a dark dessert to be devoured in swift scoops when nobody's watching).

The other entrees on this night were a pan-roasted salmon filet, enchiladas suizas and chile relleno. All were priced between $23 and $28. Appetizers ranged from $8 to $16, with tortilla soup, soft tacos, Oaxacan quesadillas and seafood ceviche all options.

To wash those down, six different drink specials were on the menu, including michelada, a mezcal shooter and margaritas. A fellow patron recommended the hibiscus margarita. Perez's mother, Catalina, supplies the hibiscus, which, along with crystalline sugars, dots the rim of the glass. It didn't disappoint.

For Perez, the night's offerings exemplify Oaxaca's different geographic influences, such as France. He called Oaxacan cooking "a big fusion of the techniques" of several nations. Kennard said the region's cuisine is "very evolved," and Perez has a unique style.

"He has a real sense of color and composition," she said.

In 1996, Perez began as a dishwasher at Wheatleigh in Lenox, where Platt had been chef. Platt assumed the same position at The Old Inn on the Green in 2002. He and Kennard bought the New Marlborough institution in 2005. Two years later, they added The Southfield Store to their holdings, bringing a seasoned Perez into the fold as chef.

Today, The Southfield Store is advertised as The Old Inn on the Green's "casual sister property," perhaps best known as a bakery and for year-round Sunday brunch. But the one-time general store deep in the New Marlborough woods serves American cuisine for dinner Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights during the summer and fall in addition to its weekly Oaxacan Thursday special.

Perez is a U.S. citizen now and lives in the Berkshires with his wife, Bettina, and his 5-year-old son, Gustavo. And while Oaxacan nights are a decade old, Perez still operates his kitchen with the intensity of someone who feels a responsibility to make a diner's first experience with authentic Oaxacan cuisine a positive one.

"We're incredibly lucky to have him," Kennard said. She added, "There's nobody else around like him."


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