By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Ten years ago, Mexican was one of the great, untapped peasant cuisines -- a massive body of lore and technique and ingredients that had been flying almost totally under the radar of your average American gourmand. It had its exemplars, its devotees, guys (mostly from the Southwest and already immersed in the taquería culture that was the leading edge of the coming wave) who would go down Mexico way and bring back toolboxes full of chiles, recipes for mole, ideas for new ways to make a taco. But for the most part, Mexican cuisine was still relegated to the category of "ethnic" food -- something you had to go to certain cities or certain parts of town to get.
Today, Mexican food is everywhere. When a new restaurant is about to open, flip a coin. If it comes up heads, the spot's going to feature some sort of Mexi-Latino-fusiony kind of menu. Tails, it'll be anything else. And while this shouldn't necessarily be bad -- Mexican is a beautiful cuisine as deep and rich and traditional as Italian, as malleable as French, able to stand up proudly against anything the world eats -- at this time and in this place, the high range of Mexican food is played out. The field is too crowded, the competition too cannibalistic, the well of available tricks, interpretations and permutations run prematurely dry. My complaint isn't that Mexican cuisine is shallow, but that its translation has become rote. How many variant ceviches can there be? How many tequila bars do we need? Trouble with a boom is, the bust can be a bitch.
The timing isn't all Cielo's fault. Curt Sims and Pam Savage, the same couple who brought us the upscale Mexican restaurant Lime, in Larimer Square, faced several hurdles in converting the old home of the Denver Buffalo Company. There were changes in management and focus, inevitable delays in outfitting the space, and by the time Cielo finally opened last summer, a whole new crop of upscale Mexican restaurants had already debuted. Measured against the competition, what Cielo does, it does remarkably well -- but what it's doing here is being done, has been done, many times over. And always with such fanfare, as if every new opening represented a paradigm shift in a cuisine whose first paradigm -- peasant food plus chiles -- is still the best.
Pechugas poblano: $17.50
Still, this kitchen has some good moves. There are sublime shrimp, snapper and mussel dishes coming off the line; good steaks and fine tacos, too. The kitchen handles simple black beans and rice with all the care of the most elaborate entree and has an unparalleled expertise with chiles. Cielo makes terrific pampas-style costillas, lean pork ribs slow-roasted, rubbed with chiles, black pepper and piloncillo, then coated in a chipotle barbecue sauce. And the kitchen does a great pechugas poblana, chicken so good that, if I weren't paying for everyone's dinner, I wouldn't have gotten a bite. But the kitchen can't leave well enough alone. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the dozen, twenty, fifty other kitchens doing different versions of the same thing, it buries its best intentions, and too much of what's good gets lost in a painfully low signal-to-noise ratio. And so those good, fat chicken breasts -- split and stuffed with rajas (peeled, roasted chiles cut into strips) and goat cheese -- were then covered in a compound sauce, an emulsion, then cheese, a combination so complicated that it took 25 words on the menu just to cover everything.
Here's the menu description for Salmon en C´scara: "salmon grilled in a corn husk with cilantro-pesto crema and New Mexico red chile aioli served with rajas gratin potatoes." The plate started with a fantastic piece of fish -- beautiful, pink, flaky, mild and perfectly cooked by a kitchen that has a true, instinctive feel for the jigsaw-puzzle play of heat and sweet and savory. But the final product -- which also included salt and pepper, lime juice and a brunoise of chiles, tomatoes, onions and jicama to top off the fish -- was long by about seventeen ingredients. Good cooks know that a dish is almost never improved by the addition of things to it and, again, is almost never hurt by their subtraction. This salmon and a simple crema would have been better. The salmon alone, cooked in its husk with lemon and a little butter, better still.
But the kitchen at Cielo just couldn't do that. Which is ironic, because what saved the salmon -- the only thing that could have saved it -- from being nothing more than a mess of antagonistic flavors all lumped up on the plate was the talent on the line. Bossed by executive chef Marcela Guerrero, this kitchen has an equipoise that's spooky in its extremes -- balancing the fish's delicate, greasy essence with the grill smoke, with the husk, with nutty pesto and smooth, cool cream, with the short burn of red chile, with sugary jicama, bitter onion, fruity roasted, skinned and seeded poblano, with bitter cilantro. The result was delicious, somehow tasting whole and wedded and complete, but the complication -- that piling on that's become the hallmark of high-tone Mex -- was so unnecessary.