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.
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.
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.
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.
Sitting there alone, contemplating the table before me, it occurred to me that while we'd had a great meal, I had no particular recollection of what was good about it. Instead, it was the garishness that stood out, the pointless complexity that I remembered. Cielo's trouble -- and, by extension, the trouble with every white-cloth Mexican restaurant in town fighting over the same ragged, diminishing ends of this market -- is that it is too in love with itself. Completely gaga over every inch of its space, every word on its menu, it presents Mexican cuisine as a tautology in which, because each thing is so fabulous, mixing each thing up with everything else must only make it more fabulous. But food doesn't work that way. Regardless of its national origins, the best food needs nothing but itself to sell itself.
With the best Mexican cooking, there's something cheap and sexy and absolutely low-fi to the flavors -- nothing complex, nothing intricate, nothing self-conscious. But those simple, lizard-brain sensations are exactly what go missing when a cook or chef or owner gets it in his head to start dressing things up and showing them off to the world.
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