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It was getting on toward late, but I was still sitting at Cielo, sprawled in a soft, comfortable, sky-blue chair across from the fireplace in the vaulted dining room, closed in by cloud-white walls, the arched black ceiling above me like starless midnight. There had been four of us for dinner, and we'd had a good time. The wreckage on the table before me -- ruined linens spotted with Rorschach stains of red-chile sauce, smears of avocado, dots of bright, oily guajillo emulsion, BBQ drippings and crumbs -- bore the proof. We'd dined well, my dinner dates and I. We'd drunk from the bar's impressive roster of artisan, infused, fancy-pants tequilas and custom cocktails; been served efficiently by a staff that doesn't always get it right but this particular night was on; eaten our way through a jumped-up nuevo-norteño, Mexi-American board of fare that was hip, buzzword-rich, endlessly self-referential and better than I'd expected.
Pechugas poblano: $17.50
And then, one by one, my companions had wandered off, running fingers around plate edges as they left or grabbing a last hit of ceviche for the road, until it was just me, the mess and the bill. I rolled a glass between my fingers, the tequila (damned if I can remember its pedigree) growing warm from my touch -- an alkie's trick for improving cheap whiskey, but one that does nothing for quality Mexican firewater.
Blue chair, black ceiling, white linen, red chile. At Cielo, even dinner's collateral damage was somehow artistic. Laughter, talk, the thrum of good company and glass-on-glass clinking from the bar all rose up into the pipes and ductwork, mingled, then fell back to Earth on the wings of soft flamenco music. At Cielo, even the noise seemed less random and more like an element that, with careful planning, could be quantified, directed and controlled.
There was something about the place that nagged at me, but all through dinner, I hadn't been able to figure out what it was. Distracted by friends, I'd been unable to get a grip on it, could only sense some wrongness lurking in the colliding vectors of style and taste, some disconnect, some fault so minor that I couldn't give it a name but so endemic that I couldn't let it go. It was like waking up with a bruise you don't remember getting -- something you might be able to ignore if you could just stop poking at it long enough.
Only I couldn't stop poking at it, so I stayed. I out-sat my party and I waited, knowing that whatever was bugging me would make itself known if I gave it space and time and quiet.
The meal began well. Cielo had welcomed us warmly with a smiling floorman at the door, easy transition from street to table, and helpful waiters (plural, because they seem to share the burdens of the dining room) offering a brief tour of the menus, educating when necessary without condescension. We'd started with a good, if not great, ceviche -- the shrimp and scallops acid-cooked in lime juice and a smooth tequila, the marinade insinuating itself into the tender flesh without melting the meat, any bitterness tempered by sweet tomato, soft avocado and bright spikes of onion. An order of mejillones al tequila brought another artful balancing act, with butter-soft mussels poached in a Franco-Mexican beurre blanc roughed up with more tequila, sweetened again with tomatoes, topped with cilantro. And then a posole, which came on strong -- hot and cruelly spicy at first blush, mean enough to bring on the scalp sweats and a coughing fit -- but stood up as an excellent starter, tuning us up to the level of surprise, depth and violence in the kitchen's repertoire the same way that catching a punch in the mouth can tune you in to the tempo of a bar fight. It's quick, and a lesson you only need once.
We followed the posole with tamales that arrived still wrapped in their corn shucks, expertly knifed open for service. They came two to a plate, one filled with masa and sweet corn that wasn't as sweet as I expected, the other with masa and turkey chorizo that looked like it should be spicy but was sweet instead. In their mild-mannered, blunt simplicity, both tamales existed almost solely as transport for the chiles they sat soaking in -- a smoky-hot red layered with the flavors of pain and honey, and a smooth, gentle green.
We ate and we drank and we talked as the appetizer plates made their slow, surreptitious circuit around the table. And it was somewhere in there -- after the ceviche, after my knife-and-fork vivisection of the chorizo tamale but before the mains began arriving -- that I began to get that nagging sensation of nothing being particularly wrong but something being not entirely right.
I liked Cielo. But I liked it the way I like my old Doc Martens or the feel of a fast car with an engine already warm from a hundred miles of hard driving. I was enjoying myself primarily because the place was so comfortable, but I was also bothered that there was nothing new here. Nothing fresh or exciting. No discrete element on any plate that moved me beyond a sort of nodding indifference. Everything reminded me of somewhere else, some other dish, some other interpretation of an interpretation. There was nothing between the ground and sky at Cielo that I hadn't seen before.
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