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I was sitting in the dining room at Milagro Taco Bar scratching hieroglyphs into the mole with my fork: hearts and squiggles, my initials. It was a good mole -- dark and glossy, thickened enough to stick, with a flavor like coffee beans and charcoal and bitter chocolate and fire. When wine snobs talk about the great old reds, they use language like that; they sniff, swirl, say, "Hmm...oak and cherries, chocolate and tobacco." And I roll my eyes, because wine is wine -- just chemistry and patience. But good mole? That's damn close to magic.
Shrimp cocktail: $6.50
Lobster tostada: $13
Tortilla soup: $5
Taco plate: $8
Enchilada plate: $7.50
BBQ salmon: $16
Pork tenderloin: $17
Chicken mole: $13
And I was savoring this one because it was one of the few successes I'd found at Milagro over five months of visits. I'd been disappointed by shrimp, by sauces, by the poblano-and-cheese empanadas that were nothing I couldn't get for free on any Bennigan's "Fiesta Friday" bar menu with my mucho macho margarita. The achiote pork tenderloin was good, but easily shown up by the sweet-potato enchilada. And the lobster tostadas I hated like poison: thirteen dollars for two little lobster tartlets set on a plate so busy it looked like a can of corn exploded across a white-on-white Jackson Pollock canvas. There was a thick chive crema, corn, onions, some infused oil, then the tostadas themselves -- puff pastry going sticky and soft in the mess, the chunks of lobster buried beneath a fall of wedded ingredients so flavorless I figured the lobster must have come in frozen. And that was just plain wrong, because Milagro is one of Frank Bonanno's restaurants, and lobster is one of Bonanno's signatures. Lobster mac and cheese at Mizuna, lobster fra diavola at Luca d'Italia -- I've had a love affair with Frank's lobster dishes since forever, but this tostada wasn't deserving of anyone's affections.
The mole was a marvel, though. It was fresh and deep with balanced flavors, and lovely even to look at, so I clung to it like a codex, a key to explaining how Milagro had lost me and where it had gone wrong.
Six months ago, I couldn't wait for the place to open. I was on the phone with Bonanno a lot, listening to him talk it up, frantically scratching notes as he told me how this new venture was going to be like another El Taco de México, a 17th Avenue version of the landmark taco stand and lunch counter that I love like an adopted mother. Tacos and beef cheeks and menudo on Saturdays, little girls in their church dresses, cheap eats and getting screwed by the counter help for not speaking Spanish -- these were archetypal El Taco experiences, and Bonanno knew and understood them as well as I did. He loved El Taco like I did. And he told me he wanted a restaurant just like that. Only better, of course. Because this was Frank Bonanno talking, and the man has never seen anything done by anyone that he hasn't figured out he can do better, cleaner, nearer to perfect -- if only by a degree. And most of the time, he's right
But not this time.
I first went to Milagro when it opened back in May, and I was horrified -- not by the food, which was decent if not earthshaking, but by the menu itself. Lobster and pork medallions and white plates sketched with foodie-bait sauces. A list of appetizers that seemed to go on forever. A coctel de camarones that was all zing and flash and served in a martini glass, I think -- but if it wasn't, it might as well have been. This place was about as far from El Taco de México as you could possibly get while still staying within shouting distance of traditional Mexican cuisine. El Taco de Burbank, maybe. El Taco de White Plains.
And the prices? Four people who were not drinking heavily laid down $120. I was so pissed I didn't go back for two months. And when I did, I got pissed off all over again.
The problem was never the room. It's comfortably rustic, done in spongy earth-tone yellows and golds, with tall booths along the walls, bare tables spotting the floor, a good bar in the back. The music is mostly anachronistic blues and the service exactly what you'd expect in these surroundings -- young, easily confused, mostly competent in a casual, neighborhoody kind of way. On a recent Saturday night, I watched Bonanno's majority partner, Mark Haber, conducting service from the bar, working his troops like Patton without the sunglasses and with a wine glass in place of the swagger stick. The house did 110 covers on a Wednesday not too long ago, and I know owners who would sell their souls for numbers like that. Some who doubtless have. And as I lingered over my mole on a Sunday at 8:30 p.m., I was far from the only guy in the house.
But five months, four menu revisions (with another one coming) and three chefs (the kitchen is now under the command of Alberto Zubios, a veteran cook with three years at Mizuna already behind him) from opening day, Milagro is still not right. The vibe of the place is so gringo-local that it would fit right in on any street corner in Anytown, USA. Every meal has made me wonder exactly what kind of weird turn I would have to take, what alley I would have to go down in the American quarter of Juarez or Tijuana or Ensenada, to find a place as conflicted as Milagro. It's as though there are two different restaurants here, both of them fighting for dominance in a split personality, neither of them winning.
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